“We could be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow, why should I care about finishing this report?”
“What’s the point of life if I’m just going to eventually die?”
“Does any of this even matter?”
Welcome to the world of existential dread, sometimes called existential angst or anxiety. It comes creeping up for pretty much everyone at some point in their lives.
“The pressures and pains of existence, those anxieties and fears associated with just living, press upon all of us, even when we aren’t aware of them,” explains Dr. Maurice Joseph, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.
While these feelings can come up at any time, certain things can trigger them, such as:
- feeling as if you’ve reached a standstill
- life transitions, particularly unwanted ones
- traumatic or life-altering experiences
- a large-scale crisis (yes, this includes pandemics)
- anxiety or depression
- a shift in identity
- the loss of a loved one
Existential thoughts can feel very heavy, but it’s possible to cope with them before they pull you into a crisis. Tunnel vision coming on? These tips can brighten your outlook.
You can usually manage unwanted emotions (like worry, fear, or sadness) by accepting them as natural parts of life from time to time. When it comes to existential dread, however, you might have to go a little deeper.
Maybe the fact you can’t answer life’s largest questions doesn’t sit well with you. But to come to terms with that fact, you may have to simply accept that you can’t accept this lack of immediate answers, Joseph explains.
This might seem a little convoluted, but think about the last time you really wanted to know something — maybe the results of a contest you entered or your boss’s thoughts on the promotion you brought up.
In both cases, you’ll eventually get answers. Sure, you might have to wait or do some extra digging. But theoretically, you could get an answer any day now, which makes it a bit easier to sit with the uncertainty.
When it comes to existential dread, however, reality doesn’t have much to offer in the way of concrete answers. This can be pretty hard to accept.
It may help to learn, though, that it’s not just you. It’s part of the “flawed design,” so to speak, of the human mind.
“We’re born into a world of things unknown, but with minds that don’t like to tolerate that,” Joseph explains.
If you have a hard time accepting the unknown, it may help to remember that this is an incredibly normal experience.
“Asking yourself these questions, and feeling frustrated by your inability to answer them, is simply part of the human experience,” Joseph says.
The important thing to remember is this: Existential dread is normal.
Existential dread often involves questioning your purpose in life, especially after a crisis disrupts your personal values or self-identity.
Say you’ve recently lost your job. Whatever that job was, it provided a set of activities, roles, and expectations that defined a significant portion of your daily life. No matter how chaotic life became, at least part of your identity was defined by your profession.
Or maybe you’re a parent or romantic partner, and you define your purpose by your strength in these roles. But life isn’t constant, and unfortunately, these parts of your identity can also change in a moment.
Divorce, breakup, or loss through death can always trigger existential dread. Even temporary lapses, such as conflict with your partner or feeling as if you made a bad parenting decision, can lead to similar self-doubt.
If you feel you haven’t succeeded at achieving your life purpose, you might feel utterly adrift, which can become a different kind of problem, according to Joseph.
“Some people veer toward nihilism here. They decide nothing matters, so there’s no point to anything. We’ll never know the answers, so why bother trying?” Joseph says.
That’s not helpful, either.
To right yourself, commit to some exploration of your values. What matters most to you?
Potential values might include:
Maybe you can’t live out these values the same way you did before, but once you identify which ones are most important to you, you can work on prioritizing them in new ways.
Reconnecting with values can stabilize you and reignite your sense of purpose going forward.
When dark, confusing, and uncertain thoughts come up, try opening up to people you trust.
Sharing feelings of existential dread can help you sort through them and relieve the overwhelming pressure to find an answer.
Chances are pretty good that whomever you turn to has considered some of these same questions and come to terms with them in their own way. Their insight can help you get perspective and increase your sense of connection when you feel most alone and powerless.
If you believe your life lacks purpose, you might have a hard time recognizing the ways you matter to other people. Your loved ones can help here, too.
Realizing the ways you strengthen and support others can reaffirm your sense of community and guide your search for meaning.
Journaling can provide a lot of insight about the complexities of your deepest thoughts, even if you only do it for a few minutes each day.
After a week or two of jotting down emotions, feelings, or questions that occur to you, you might start to notice subtle patterns.
Certain things — reading the news before bed, skipping breakfast, not getting outside — might stand out that seem to increase your feelings of dread.
You can also use your journal to reflect on aspects of your identity that already fulfill you and add to your sense of meaning.
In other words, practice affirming and embracing things you love about yourself without worrying about who or what you need to become.
Reduced anxiety (even existential anxiety) is among meditation’s many benefits.
Meditation is a great way to practice sitting with uncomfortable thoughts, since learning to acknowledge these thoughts and then let them go helps increase your sense of control over them.
In time, meditation can heighten internal calm and self-awareness, making it easier to focus on the present without getting overwhelmed by worries around deeper meanings and other endless possibilities you can’t lock down.
That isn’t to say you should completely avoid all existential thoughts (more on that later). But staying attuned to the here and now helps you productively explore these ideas without getting trapped in a cycle of questioning your direction in life.
You may not feel like laughing when the world seems bleak or pointless. Your life, your reality, the world you live in: None of these are necessarily permanent.
No matter how carefully you construct your life and attempt to protect it, you could lose everything without warning.
This thought might terrify you. That’s absolutely normal. If you spend a lot of time considering this possibility, it’s only natural you’ll start to feel upset or afraid.
However the very fact that circumstances could change so quickly makes it all the more important to enjoy what you have right now, without focusing on the countless things that you might never face.
To distract yourself from distress:
- Find reasons to laugh or smile.
- Do things on a whim, just because you want to (challenge yourself not to find any other reasons).
- Try being more playful and emotionally connected with your children, your partner, or friends.
Creating more joy in your life won’t make existential dread disappear, but you may notice that the bulk of your worries fade into the background and become much more manageable.
It’s OK to reflect on deep questions from time to time. In fact, doing so can help you live a more meaningful life. Checking in with yourself about your goals, your sense of purpose, and your values can help you make sure you’re living your best life.
But if you’re unable to distract yourself from overwhelming existential distress without blocking it out entirely, it might be time to reach out to a therapist for support. You can speak to your primary care doctor, too.
“A great way to get into trouble in life is to try and find one specific, final answer to these questions. This might seem like a good idea, but when it’s not possible to answer them, we wind up torturing ourselves,” Joseph says.
If you find yourself in a state of uncertain limbo, where unpredictable outcomes keep you from making decisions, therapy offers a place to begin examining existential questions and explore ways to get more comfortable with your uncertainty.
Navigating existential dread can be tough. It’s easy to get stuck wondering about the answers to the great questions of life.
Sometimes, though, there are no better answers than the ones you make yourself — the ones you find through living.
In other words, the best way to find meaning in life may be to create your own meaning, by doing things that bring you peace and increase your sense of connection to the world around you.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.