A young woman experiences what existential anxiety really feels like.

Here’s What Existential Anxiety Really Feels Like

December 7, 2023

5 min.

Regularly questioning the meaning of life and how you fit into the universe can lead to feelings of purposelessness and overwhelm, also known as existential anxiety.

By: Sarah Fielding

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Trigger warning: Suicide. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts and think you’re in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. In this case, you should contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

You’ve likely heard the phrase existential crisis, referring to spiraling about things like your place in the universe and the fundamental nature of existence. For most, an existential crisis amounts to an intrusive thought or two about the meaning of life, which usually passes. For others, though, this kind of thinking can grow into something known as existential anxiety, a distressing emotional response arising from constantly confronting questions of existence. Below, we delve into the signs of existential anxiety and treatments that help with symptom management.  

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What is existential anxiety?

According to Dr. Caroline Fenkel, DSW, LCSW, chief clinical officer and co-founder of Charlie Health, existential anxiety is “a form of anxiety that arises from the constant contemplation of the human condition, including the meaning, purpose, and inevitability of mortality.” 

Whereas an existential crisis is usually fleeting and just involves thoughts, existential anxiety tends to be recurrent and extend beyond negative thoughts. Regularly questioning the meaning of life and how you fit into the universe can lead to feelings of purposelessness and hopelessness, says Fenkel. In extreme circumstances, it can even make people question their existence.

If existential anxiety is leading you to have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, this is a mental health emergency, and you should contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. If you’re not in a mental health crisis but still dealing with the symptoms of existential anxiety, there are ways to cope (more on this below). 

What can trigger existential anxiety?

Existential anxiety is often caused by an event or change that makes you confront your or a loved one’s mortality. This feeling of existential dread might be from the passing of a loved one or going through a near-death experience. In fact, the American Psychological Association defines existential anxiety as “a general sense of anguish or despair associated with an individual’s recognition of the inevitability of death.” 

“Existential anxiety can also be triggered or exacerbated by life transitions,” says Fenkel. It might stem from a change that questions your place in the world and what meaning you put into it. This instance could be leaving a job entwined with your identity or having a falling out with a loved one. Significant career shifts, poor health diagnoses, and shifts in the people you surround yourself with are also possible triggers for existential anxiety, says Fenkel. 

Having a co-occurring mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or another trauma-related condition may also trigger existential anxiety, says Fenkel. A related mental health disorder can also heighten feelings of existential anxiety and impact the way it affects you. 

How to cope with existential thought and anxiety

Like any mental health experience, finding what techniques work for you is key. Here are some steps Fenkel recommends taking to cope with existential anxiety. 

Read about existentialism

Education is a great first step to understanding why you feel the way you do and how to cope with existential dread. Reading books about existentialism and related subjects can also make you feel understood and might help you find peace with life’s unanswerable questions and the experience of existential crises that are part of being a human being. 

Build a routine

Existential anxiety can cause a sense of feeling untethered from the world and uncertain about how to exist in it. A routine can minimize the feeling of aimlessness and create a greater sense of grounding in your life. It can also free up some of your energy from daily decisions to coping with the mental health impact of existential anxiety. 

Find a sense of purpose

Take things one step further and explore ways to give your life the sense of purpose that existential anxiety can make you believe doesn’t exist. You might find meaning in volunteering, expressing yourself creatively, thinking about personal values, or any other grounding experience. 

Practice mindfulness

Few instances of poor mental health can’t be bettered — even slightly — by mindfulness practice. Try to meditate regularly, even for a few minutes a day, and it could improve your ability to accept the uncertainty and impermanence of life, says Fenkel. It can help with other mental health conditions, such as depression. 

A young man practices mindfulness to cope with existential thoughts and anxiety.

Talk to someone

It’s easy to feel alone in your concerns as you see people go through their day-to-day lives, but everyone struggles with existential questions at times. Even if your friends haven’t dealt with existential anxiety, they will likely be able to relate to what you’re going through. Talking to friends and loved ones about your concerns can be incredibly validating, and you might find that you experience similar existential crises. 

You can also reach out to a mental health professional to discuss how you feel (whether or not you’re comfortable talking with loved ones) during existential therapy. “Talk to a therapist or counselor who specializes in existential concerns,” says Fenkel. “Therapy can help explore these feelings and provide tools for managing them.” Attending existential therapy can be beneficial in managing panic attacks, dread, and intrusive thoughts, which some people with existential anxiety experience. An existential therapist can also create a space to discuss existential despair, existential thoughts, and existential isolation — all of the many facets of existential anxiety. 

How Charlie Health can help with existential anxiety 

If existential anxiety is impacting your daily life and well-being, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions, including anxiety-related conditions like existential anxiety. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based anxiety therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing existential anxiety is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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