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  • Sarah Rossmiller LPC

Understanding and Overcoming Existential Anxiety and Despair

Existential anxiety, sometimes referred to as existential despair, is a profound and often unsettling experience that arises from the contemplation of life's apparent lack of inherent meaning or purpose. It's a reaction to what philosophers and existentialists call the "absurdity of life" – the paradoxical notion that, as humans, we yearn for deep and significant meaning, yet the universe itself does not offer a predetermined or universally agreed-upon purpose. Instead, it suggests that we must forge our own path, making meaning from the raw materials of our existence.

Existential anxiety can be traced back to existentialism's core assertion that there are no definitive right or perfect answers for how one should live their life. Instead, we are called upon to make choices and create our own values from our own individual truths. This immense responsibility can feel overwhelming and provoke feelings of anxiety and despair.

Irvin D. Yalom, a prominent existential psychotherapist, identified four fundamental "givens" or "concerns" of existence that are particularly pertinent in psychotherapy and serve as a framework for understanding the existential anxieties that many individuals grapple with:

  1. Death - the inevitability of mortality for ourselves and our loved ones

  2. Freedom, or our ultimate individual responsibility to shape our lives

  3. Isolation - our ultimate sense of aloneness

  4. Meaninglessness, or the absence of any readily apparent or intrinsic meaning or sense in life

Each person seeks their own way of coping with these concerns, which can manifest in both healthy and less adaptive and sometimes even destructive ways.

One common but unhelpful strategy for managing existential anxiety is distraction. People often create diversions for themselves, believing that this will alleviate the pain of confronting existential anxiety. However, this approach merely shifts the anxiety into other forms, such as excessive worrying about day-to-day matters, becoming engrossed in the routines of daily life, or overly focusing on trivial relationship issues. Over time, these distractions can lead to the construction of a "false self" built upon avoidance, repression, and denial, causing individuals to lose touch with their authentic selves and their potential for growth and fulfillment.

"Examine the mask, recognize your dissatisfaction with it, discover the real self underneath," as Carl Rogers wisely advises. Reconnecting with your genuine self is a crucial step in addressing existential anxiety.

Even when you believe you have reconciled with existential concerns, they may resurface when confronted with significant life transitions or decisions. This resurgence can vary in intensity, from fleeting moments of doubt to more prolonged periods of existential angst that seem unending.

Managing existential anxiety is a lifelong journey that forms an integral part of human existence. Anxiety, including existential anxiety, is an unavoidable aspect of the human experience. What sets individuals apart is how they deal with this anxiety. It doesn't have to be overwhelming or paralyzing.

Effectively managing existential anxiety involves learning to live in the present moment, deriving personal meaning from everyday experiences, and engaging with work and relationships authentically and intentionally. This is a lifelong endeavor and is, in essence, what life itself entails.

So, as you navigate the labyrinth of existential anxiety, remember that it's not about eliminating it entirely; it's about harnessing it as a catalyst for growth. Explore your authentic self, live in the present, and engage with life's uncertainties. In this journey, therapy can be your trusted guide, helping you find meaning and purpose in the ever-unfolding story of your existence and regaining your path when you stray from it.


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