Existential Anxiety, Stress, and Meaning-Making in Your Life
Thursday, April 2 2015 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Existential anxiety is an all-encompassing form of anxiety and stress that is present in a nagging way when we try to make meaning in life simply because, as humans, we exist. That’s a fun concept, isn’t it? We experience anxiety, stress, strife, worry, and even panic simply because we are alive. Being alive is certainly a wonderful thing, but existential anxiety can put a damper on it (this might be an understatement). Why does mere existence cause us dissonance and different kinds of stress, and can it go away? Can we make meaning in our lives despite this existential anxiety and stress?
Existential Anxiety and Stress Can Be Unclear
A great example of someone with existential anxiety is Charlie Brown. Ol’ Chuck appears pretty calm; his angst is in his thoughts and feelings. Sometimes existential anxiety also involves agitation, fretting, and anxiety attacks.
There’s a great scene in one of the Peanuts cartoons in which Charlie Brown is at Lucy’s Psychiatric Help stand. Lucy is pelting Charlie Brown with a list of phobias that might be causing his anxiety and depression.
Lucy: Maybe you have pantophobia. Do you think you have pantophobia?
Charlie Brown: What's pantophobia?
Lucy: The fear of everything.
Charlie Brown: That's it!
Indeed, existential anxiety and stress can be vague when you're trying to make meaning in your life. For Charlie Brown, it felt not like specific fears such as the fear of cats or the ocean, but like the fear of everything. (Lucy should really have called it panophobia, but we can forgive her because after all, she’s only in elementary school.)
When We Wonder About Our Very Existence, We Experience Existential Anxiety and Stress
This anxiety that causes us to feel unsettled and uncomfortable, anxious about everything but unable to articulate exactly what it is, is frustrating in its ambiguity. This anxiety and stress that make us feel tired yet wired, make our thoughts race about what feels like nothing, make us afraid of things we can’t pinpoint and thus can’t address or avoid actually can be a very positive part of our existence.
The unspecific nature of existential anxiety is caused by the fact that the anxiety is indeed about our existence, about life’s big questions and about making meaning in your life. When we are anxious and stressed about everything and about nothing, it is often because it is the human way of wrestling with what’s important:
- Who am I?
- What is my purpose?
- Where do I fit?
- Why is the grass greener over there, and how do I get mine that way?
Grappling with these life questions causes existential anxiety, yes, but this gives us the opportunity to create meaning in our own life.
Existential Anxiety Can Lead to Meaning-Making in Our Life
Worrying about the answers to the big life questions can be both the source of existential anxiety and the liberation from it as we create meaning for our lives and ourselves. We do have the power and ability for meaning-making. Really, if we have the ability to be anxious, it makes sense that we also have what it takes to cure that anxiety and live a life of purpose.
Fretting and stressing about who we are, our place in life, and what we’re passionate about doing can cause us to become stuck in the past (“I should have done x,” “I shouldn’t have said y,” etc.). It can also cause us to attempt (unsuccessfully) to live in the future and frolic in the land of “what-ifs.” Projecting our thoughts into the past or the future means that our thoughts are not in the same place as we are – the present.
Meaning Making and Getting Rid of Existential Anxiety and Stress
There are many ways to live in the present and create meaning in our lives. Here are a few user-friendly tips that have worked for people:
Ponder Those Times You Feel Less Anxious
• Keep a gratitude journal. This is a very common technique for overcoming difficulties and creating wellbeing. For existential anxiety, the goal is of course to jot down the things for which you’re grateful, but beyond that to look for patterns among those items. Does your gratitude often involve family? Friends? Opportunities for learning? Time in a given activity? When you see the patterns, you start to notice exactly what it is that makes you feel joy.
• Find flow. Similar to the patterns of gratitude, what are those things where you find flow? A state of flow occurs when you are doing something so engaging that you lose yourself. You forget about your anxiety, and you feel both calm and vibrant.
Decide where you can make more of the above things, where you can make more meaning, and take steps to do them.
Do more of what makes you less anxious. What little things can you do every day to make meaning and decrease anxiety?
Existential anxiety is part of the human experience; however, that doesn't mean that we have to live in perpetual stress, worry, and fear. When we pause over life’s big questions, we can use our own answers for meaning-making. When we live a life meaningful to us, existential anxiety becomes more calm and peaceful and changes, simply, to “exist.”