Existential anxiety involves worries about life, death, and existence itself. While these feelings can be challenging, they can also be a catalyst to live a more fulfilling, meaningful life.

Someone sitting on the edge of sea, watching a comet. Share on Pinterest
Ibai Acevedo/Stocksy United

It’s typical to question the nature of the universe and your place in it from time to time — these existential questions are simply a natural part of a life with many unsolved mysteries.

Yet you may be experiencing existential anxiety if these questions take over your day-to-day activities and inspire a feeling of intense worry, dread, or panic.

If you feel worried about existence or what comes afterward, you’re certainly not alone. But that doesn’t always make it feel any less stressful.

By taking time to understand and address your existential feelings, you can find greater peace of mind and live a life you love. This article offers one way to begin.

According to a 2016 research review from the American Psychological Association, existential crises are a part of being alive. On the surface, they may feel like negative experiences, but researchers suggest that they signify an important journey — one that can inform your life and choices for the better.

There are no one-size-fits-all symptoms for existential anxiety. Some symptoms of it include:

  • experiencing frequent dread, worry, or panic
  • questioning your beliefs, values, or choices
  • having difficulty making decisions
  • feeling like life is always going to be difficult
  • obsessing over existential ideas
  • withdrawing from daily activities
  • isolating yourself from others
  • feeling lonely
  • feeling guilt or shame
  • feeling like life is pointless

If your queries make you feel sad, hopeless, or helpless, you may be coping with existential depression. Like any form of anxiety, existential anxiety may also have physical manifestations such as:

Panic surrounding existential anxiety

Panic attacks may understandably feel very scary, but they are not usually a medical emergency. You can calm your panic through strategies such as talking with a loved one, doing deep breathing exercises, and engaging in light exercise (more on that below).

Everyone’s experience of panic attacks is different. Yours could consist of:

But if you experience chest pain and think it may be due to a heart attack rather than a panic attack, it’s always best to contact emergency support. Learn more about the differences between panic and heart attacks.

Is existential anxiety the same as death anxiety?

Anxiety about death may contribute to existential anxiety, but they’re not exactly the same.

For instance, in a 2016 review, researchers noted that the following features in a group of participants were all risk factors for developing existential anxiety:

  • death anxiety
  • religious tendencies
  • spiritual tendencies

Ultimately, existential anxieties encompass not only fears of dying but also of existence itself.

Was this helpful?

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point, often due to stress about work, health, money, or relationships. Existential worries, by contrast, are more about the bigger picture of existence, ranging from consciousness to the cosmos.

Existential anxiety has a few key features, including rumination about:

  • fate versus free will
  • death and the afterlife
  • the purpose of life
  • moral concerns
  • past and future choices

An existential crisis (which may occur as a result of existential anxiety) is often a response to larger issues that you have internalized, according to the 2016 review from the American Psychological Association mentioned earlier in this article. For example, the loss of a loved one may trigger thoughts about death and the afterlife at large.

Some other things that may trigger existential anxiety in today’s world include:

  • Traumatic experiences: like abuse, a major health event, or a divorce
  • Major life transitions: like moving, graduating from school, or having a baby
  • A large-scale crisis: like the COVID-19 pandemic, war, or climate change
  • Unknowns: like the possibility of an afterlife, aliens, or spirits
  • Societal shifts: like artificial intelligence (AI) or social media use

In a 2024 study, researchers found that “doomscrolling” (defined by researchers as excess consumption of negative content) caused existential anxiety as well as pessimism about human nature in both American and Iranian subjects. Meanwhile, a 2021 review found that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered mass existential anxiety in people across the globe.

Some common existential questions that may lead to anxiety include:

  • What happens after we die?
  • What is our purpose on Earth?
  • Am I living authentically?
  • What is the self?
  • Why do harmful things happen on Earth?
  • Why do we dream?
  • Are we alone in the universe?

Though these are natural questions to ask, you may be experiencing existential anxiety if they trigger feelings of dread, fear, or panic.

Much like life itself, the process of calming existential anxiety can be a very individual journey. It can also be one that is shared with loved ones.

Some ways to calm existential anxiety include:

  • Therapeutic approaches: These include existential therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and they are effective ways to address your thought patterns and behaviors to help you live a life you love. Logotherapy is a therapeutic technique that emphasizes finding meaning in life, which may also ease many existential worries. Check out this article to learn more about finding the right therapist for you.
  • Mindfulness techniques: You might try meditation, breathwork, and yoga, which can help calm your mental chatter, slow your heart rate, and soothe anxiety symptoms overall. With a clearer mind and calmer body, you may find significant relief.
  • Leading a healthy, balanced lifestyle: A well-rounded diet, sufficient sleep and exercise, and enough time outdoors and with loved ones can soothe anxiety symptoms and help you remain present, grounded, and engaged with life.
  • Sharing your feelings: This can help soothe existential worries and allow you to connect with others on a deeper level. Remember, you’re not alone in this.
  • Defining your values: Figuring out your values and what’s most important to you in life are the first steps toward embodying them. When you live by your values, you can make decisions you feel confident about and lead an existence that you truly value and cherish.
  • Finding meaning in your life: Some people do this through spirituality, religion, or philosophy. Others may find this through work, volunteering, or personal relationships. According to some experts, finding your own definition of meaning in life can protect against existential dread.
  • Maintaining a positive mood: According to the same experts, this is associated with perceiving life as meaningful (not to be confused with toxic positivity). By valuing your own happiness, you may find that your life improves significantly as well as also feels more meaningful. You can boost your mood through activities like:
  • Redirecting your attention: Humor, hobbies you enjoy, and time with friends can help you find relief. And remember that, in the end, these activities are also a fundamental part of what life is all about.
  • Practicing compassion: Showing yourself kindness, love, and forgiveness can resolve many issues in life, existential anxieties included.

Existential anxiety may feel challenging to manage, but many experts agree that it can be a significant opportunity for post-traumatic growth. This can help inspire a shift from a life that may seem empty, shallow, or meaningless to you to one that you find to be full of growth, enhancement, and genuine value.

How long does existential anxiety last?

There’s no set time that existential anxiety lasts. Like other forms of anxiety, it may last anywhere from a few minutes to months at a time. Meanwhile, panic attacks typically only last for 2 to 10 minutes.

If regular existential anxiety or panic significantly disrupts your daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder. If that sounds like you, this existential dread doesn’t have to last forever. You can take steps to find greater peace and live well.

Was this helpful?

It’s natural for existential questions to arise from time to time — but if they’re causing anxiety, you may want to seek support. A therapist or loved one can help you address these big questions and embrace life more fully, while strategies like self-compassion can help you attain a more peaceful, loving existence.