Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/26/2022
There are a lot of not-so-great things happening all over the world that can increase your stress levels. Or maybe wondering about the meaning of life — particularly, your life — brings on a wave of anxiety. If this anxiety persists, you could very well be dealing with existential anxiety.
While we all deal with anxiety and stress, these feelings are typically temporary and go away when whatever causes the stress is gone. But existential anxiety could be present for a long time or even last your whole life.
We’ll go over what this type of anxiety actually is, as well as symptoms, causes and treatment options for existential anxiety.
Thinking about existential themes — death and the meaning of life — is normal. For some, these thoughts can be comforting or help them find their purpose. But dwelling on these thoughts for long periods of time can cause intense stress and anxiety, and can certainly impact your quality of life.
The American Psychological Association defines existential anxiety, or existential dread, as an overall sense of despair, dread or severe distress over our existence or the inevitability of death.
This type of anxiety is named after existentialist philosophy, the idea that we have free will to make meaningful choices for our lives.
This philosophy emphasizes living an authentic existence rather than relying on religion or other “higher powers” to determine the course of your life. Existential themes often focus on the meaning of human existence and creating your own purpose in a purposeless world.
Existential anxiety can almost be thought of as increased regular anxiety. Typical anxiety may make us worry about getting into a car accident while driving or stressing about money problems. These worries can typically be resolved through reassuring thoughts.
Existential anxiety is more difficult to resolve immediately because this type of anxiety is brought on by big questions about life, death and existence that we can’t really answer.
For example, you may wonder about what happens after death or feel anxiety that you’re living a meaningless life. This would be existential death anxiety.
Another similar concept is existential crises. Existential crises often follow an event or period in your life that causes upheaval, has you questioning your life’s purpose and meaning or may even have you confront your death.
The death of a loved one, serious illness, sudden changes in circumstances, global or national events or simply getting older can all trigger existential crises.
Both an existential crisis and existential anxiety can have you questioning many things in your life, in particular asking “What’s the point?” or “Why does this matter?”
But while an existential crisis can typically be connected to a particular event or turning point in your life, existential anxiety is a bit more vague, and can have many different causes.
You might feel this type of anxiety over issues such as:
Past choices in life or acts that cause guilt or regret over what could have been
Fate or death
Emptiness or meaningless
Not living a moral life or living up to certain moral standards
Going through unexpected major life events may also have an impact on whether someone develops existential anxiety. A study of over 300 adolescents who lived through natural disasters found that they were more likely to experience existential anxiety, as well as higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Certain ages can also spark different existential crises, like a mid-life crisis. When you’re a teen, you may start questioning what path you want to take in life or feel like your whole identity is changing when you go to college. Or someone going through a divorce may wonder who they are without their partner.
Regular, everyday anxiety has some telltale symptoms: fast heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath, dry mouth and more.
Existential anxiety, meanwhile, may have more mental or emotional than physical symptoms. Some existential anxiety symptoms include:
Difficulty making decisions
Experiencing despair or regret
Feeling like everyday life is a struggle
Withdrawing from people or activities you usually spend time on
Lack of motivation
Questioning life-long beliefs
Having panic attacks
While existential anxiety may not be as obvious as other types of anxiety, it’s still manageable.
So, how does one treat existential anxiety or existential death anxiety? While existential anxiety isn’t a formal diagnosis like other anxiety disorders, this persistent feeling of dread can certainly affect your everyday life and well-being.
Unlike generalized anxiety disorder or depression, there isn’t a specific treatment plan for existential anxiety. There are, however, ways to work through and overcome existential anxiety.
One of the best ways to do this is by exploring and examining the feelings and questions that come up. Working with a mental health professional can help you better understand these emotions, as well as learn more about yourself.
Two types of therapy that may be useful for existential anxiety are existential therapy and logotherapy.
Existential therapy helps people identify both difficulties and questions about the human experience and themselves, and learn to fully embrace them both.
Logotherapy is a type of therapy that focuses on finding meaning in life and using this meaning to help overcome hardships.
You can start working with a licensed mental health professional from the comfort of your home today.
Other ways to cope with existential anxiety include:
Reconnect with people. Reestablishing connections with the people who love and support you can give you space to talk about the thoughts and feelings you’re having. This support system can help you stay grounded in the present.
Practice gratitude. Starting a gratitude practice has been shown to have numerous benefits, including feeling more optimistic, increased happiness and feeling more positivity. Keeping a gratitude journal in particular may also help you figure out what is important to you and where you want to devote your energy.
Don’t look back. If you’re racked with guilt over a past life choice, try to focus on the present moment instead and where you want your life to go.
Be present. Practicing mindfulness — living and being fully present in the current moment — can help with anxiety about the future, as well as reduce stress. If you’re new to this practice, our guide on mindfulness talks more about the benefits and how to get started.
Existential anxiety is a type of anxiety that comes from thinking about your existence or death. While this is a fairly normal part of life, it can cause feelings of dread, loneliness and unease for some people.
Someone who experiences existential anxiety may have trouble making decisions, feel like they’re struggling with life, disconnect from friends and their typical activities and question their life’s purpose.
While there’s no traditional treatment plan for this type of anxiety, talking about what you’re thinking and feeling with loved ones or a therapist can help you find some resolution to any feelings of anxiety.