Existential Anxiety: What is it and how to cope with it.
Existential anxiety (or despair) refers to that feeling that life is pointless or that our existence has no meaning. It's a reaction to the "absurdity of life" - that as humans we seek a deep and valuable meaning for life, yet there is none (or rather, there is infinite meaning to be made, which can be equally anxiety-provoking). It is a reaction to existentialism's stance that there is no right or perfect answer for how to live; we must choose for ourselves from a place of personal truth within us, and this massive responsibility can feel very overwhelming.
"Four givens are particularly relevant for psychotherapy: the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life." (Irvin D. Yalom, Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy)
Thoughts and feelings of the fearful, worrisome, angsty, or dread-filled variety are typically placed into 4 categories within an existential viewpoint; these are called the "ultimate concerns" and revolve around the topics of death, freedom (or responsibility), isolation, and meaninglessness. We each seek to cope with these concerns in our own way, whether healthy and useful to us or otherwise. When we find ourselves unable or unwilling to confront one or more of these concerns in a way that allows us to live more fully and satisfyingly, we turn to other strategies that can erode our sense of self and well-being over time.
A common unhelpful form of managing the anxiety of these concerns is to create various distractions for ourselves. These distractions may seem to relieve the pain of confronting anxiety but in actuality this strategy only forces anxiety to manifest in other ways - worrying about day-to-day issues, getting lost in "the daily grind", and focusing on mundane or tedious relationship matters. We create a "false-self" out of all our distraction, repression, avoidance, and denial. We lose who we really are, and we let our beautiful potential selves shrivel and die as we sit bedside to watch.
"Examine the mask, recognize your dissatisfaction with it, discover the real self underneath." (Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person)
Even when you think you have reconciled with these existential concerns, they can easily crop back up when you're faced with a new life transition or major life decisions. It can affect you only briefly, weighing down on you for a day or two like a heavy blanket draped over your whole body that is slowly pulled off, letting back in the fresh air. It can last for much longer - weeks, months, or years - to the point you are unable to imagine ever feeling anything different.
Confronting each of the four ultimate concerns and learning to harness the anxiety that these bring about is a journey - and this journey is life. Anxiety is inevitable and a part of every human's experience. It is what we do with this anxiety that makes a difference. It does not have to be crushing or debilitating.
Learning to live within the moment, making meaning for your own life by immersing yourself in the act of living, and engaging in work and relationships in an intentional, authentic way encompasses the job of skillfully managing existential anxiety. Therapy is a great way to help you evaluate your life and how you're creating meaning, build a path for yourself that upholds your true potential, and find your way back to your path when you find you've strayed.
Basically, at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that's what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity. (Albert Camus)