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What’s Existential Anxiety?

By The Fix staff 01/06/21 Sponsored

The pandemic has many people feeling helpless and questioning the meaning of life. Here’s how to cope.

The world is experiencing an existential crisis.

What’s the meaning of it all?

That’s a question that many of us have been asking ourselves since the pandemic started. Of course, many people grappled with questions about meaning, significance, and happiness long before COVID-19 dominated headlines. But since the pandemic upended life as usual and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, the world is experiencing a global existential crisis.

Here’s what that means, and what do to if it’s affecting your life, according to Geoff Thompson, PhD, program director for Sunshine Coast Health Centre in British Columbia. 

What’s existential angst?

Existential anxiety or angst happens when you spend a lot of time thinking about your existence, and what it all means.

“It’s trying to make sense of suffering,” Thompson says.

It usually involves worry about the meaning of life and death. For many people, existential angst arises during transition periods that leave them aware of their mortality, like the death of a parent or a significant birthday.

“It’s not any birthday, but those when the person feels their age is inevitably pushing them toward nothingness,” Thompson explains.

At its root, existential worry is about wondering what life means, and feeling that something might threaten your life itself, or your very existence, Thompson says. In practice, existential anxiety can present as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fear or worry

The pandemic and existential angst

It’s normal for existential angst to present during times of uncertainty, and right now we’re all experience unprecedented uncertainty. There’s fear over life and death: that we or people we love could catch COVID-19 and die. There’s also interruption of the normal routines that provide many of us with peace of mind.

There’s no simple fix for existential worry, especially during a pandemic. However, there are ways that you can combat your worry and anxiety. Here’s what Thompson recommends:

  • Embrace uncertainty. One of the biggest ways to let go of worry right now is to accept that we’re living in uncertain times. We simply can’t know the answers to the pressing questions, like when we’ll get the vaccine, or how the virus will affect the economy over the next few years.

    Of course, learning to live with uncertainty is easier said than done. However, you can take small steps to make yourself more comfortable. When you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by the unpredictability, take deep, calming breaths.
     
  • Recognize that this isn’t new. Remind yourself that life is never certain. Sure, that may be more obvious than ever at the moment, but not knowing the future is not a new condition. You’re already a pro at living with uncertainty, so there’s no need to worry about it now more than usual.
     
  • Focus on what you can control. If you find comfort in being in control of things, you should direct your energy to efforts that are truly within your control. This is much more productive than worrying about things like a vaccine or the economy that you have no way of impacting.

    Take a moment to think about your worries and identify the core themes. For example, many people are currently worried about health and finances. Then, identify concrete steps that you can take to improve those areas of your life today. You can’t control the stock market, but you can implement a budget; you can’t entirely safeguard yourself against COVID-19, but you can mitigate your risk through steps like wearing a mask, minimizing trips in public, and following other CDC guidelines.
     
  • Be of service. During a global reckoning, it’s easy to feel like life is meaningless. However, you can push back on that depressing narrative by doing meaningful acts for others. If you are passionate about social justice, you can volunteer to tutor Black, immigrant or LGBTQ+ youth. You can join organizations that provide meals or shopping for people who are unable to leave their homes or need help taking care of themselves. And you can always reach out to a friend in recovery, just to check in and say hello.

    These acts can be comforting. They remind us that even though we’re small in the grand scheme of the universe, we have the power to make a positive difference in another person’s life.

At the end of the day, it’s also helpful to remember that you’re not the only person feeling existential angst right now. Millions of people around the world are questioning the meaning of their lives, careers and relationships. We may be apart, but we’re certainly not alone.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.

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