5 Ways to Cope With Existential Anxiety, According to Experts
Have you ever stayed up late at night, fretting about how you are wasting your life at a job you hate? Maybe you're avoiding loved ones because you no longer feel much of a connection with them? Or perhaps, you worry that you are lost and will never find your place in this world? If your answer to any or all of these questions is "yes," welcome to the world of existential anxiety.
According to Choosing Therapy, "Existential anxiety is the struggle to understand yourself, life in general, and what you want out of it. It can cause feelings of discontent, distress, and unease that can be hard to pinpoint, and it can be highly uncomfortable. To experience it is to experience all-encompassing doubt and deep questions about one's future as well as life's meaning and purpose."
If you feel this way, I feel for you because I am no stranger to existential anxiety myself. I know how it makes life significantly harder: It makes me question every move I make in my personal and professional life. It often makes me wonder whether I am being true to myself, if I am living my purpose, and other uncomfortably introspective things like that.
When the mind is chronically burdened with such heavy thoughts, daily activities become cumbersome, and life feels joyless and overwhelming. If you're looking for healthy ways to cope with existential anxiety, read on to see how mental health experts say to cope.
1. Find a self-care habit.
My existential anxiety is typically purpose-related, and I find my purpose in work. When it takes over, I feel the urge to avoid work and escape my life. On such days, before I begin working, I read my list of affirmations to remind myself that I'm doing the best I can.
However, affirmations don't work for you, there are other self-care habits you can try to calm yourself. Dr. Jaclyn Bauer, Ph. D., clinical psychologist, and founder of Virtue Supplements, says, "Meditation is helpful to still the mind and to focus on mindfulness. For many people, journaling is beneficial because they can write worrying thoughts and feelings down and almost release them, thereby decreasing their intensity." The idea is to do whatever helps you feel at ease to help get rid of the existential anxiety.
2. Use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
One of my favorite ways to stop the loop of worrying thoughts is to use logic. And that's what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) enables me to do. For example, when the thought "This is pointless, I'm not going to find anyone" enters my head when I'm swiping through dating app profiles, instead of accepting it as the truth, I challenge the validity of that thought and ask myself why I think this. My answer is typically something like "Well, I don't have anything to offer." Again, I ask myself if that is true. Then, I mentally enlist my good qualities to remind myself that I have a lot to offer. After I have this discussion with myself, the thought goes away for a while and I can swipe in peace.
CBT also involves replacing false, negative self-talk with facts and self-compassion. It enables me to distinguish between what's true and what isn't and prevents anxious thoughts from spiraling or getting worse. I learned how to use CBT from a therapist, and I highly recommend you do the same to improve your quality of life.
3. Distract yourself from time to time.
While it's great to be proactive when you have existential anxiety, sometimes it's best to distract yourself. Chronic anxious thoughts tend to be mentally exhausting, so it's good to give your mind a break. I turn off my brain by watching engaging films. It may not be 100% effective, but it is sure to make a difference.
Dr. Bauer recommends distraction as well. "Change your environment (i.e. move to a different room, go outside, change the music in your car) and change what you are doing. If you are watching TV and notice these thoughts, get up and move to a different room. Read a book, clean, call a friend. Distraction is also useful to help stop spiraling."
4. Remember that you are not alone.
It's natural to feel as if you are the only one struggling and everyone else is thriving, or at least doing better than you. However, this is not the case. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. I'm willing to bet that people who have anxiety disorders tend to experience existential anxiety as well. Laurie Singer, M.S., behavioral and cognitive therapist, and founder at Laurie Singer Behavioral Services, says that for both anxiety and existential anxiety, negative thoughts control one's behavior. Therefore, their coping mechanisms are similar. She shares one of her most effective methods to calm down quickly.
"Consider a traffic signal, which has three colors: red, yellow, and green," says Singer. "When you start to become anxious at the vastness of all-encompassing questions related to the meaning of life, think of the color red and stop what you are thinking. Next, think of the color yellow and make a choice to change your negative thoughts into something positive. Lastly, think of the color green and take three deep breaths, slowly in through your nose and out your mouth."
5. Consult a licensed therapist.
Due to the pandemic, many of us faced immense and unprecedented mental health challenges. It compelled us to evaluate if we were living authentic, meaningful lives. Indeed, existential anxiety is the reason why many people have made significant lifestyle changes. It made me reconsider my priorities and question my purpose in life as well.
If your anxiety becomes unmanageable or more intense, you must seek professional help. Speaking from personal experience, some warning signs to look out for are difficulty making decisions, lack of meaning in personally significant tasks, and a general loss of motivation, says Dr. Bauer.
Dr. Bauer also gives some crucial pointers on when you must make an appointment right away. "If you cannot control anxious thoughts and they are affecting everyday life, see a therapist. If you get frequent panic attacks and you struggle to ground yourself, this is another sign that you must talk to a therapist."