Coping With Existential Anxiety

How to Find Meaning in Life

Finding meaning in life can reduce existential anxiety.

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Existential anxiety refers to feelings of unease about meaning, choice, and freedom in life. While anxiety is a basic theme of life and reflects the experience of fear or being threatened, this is usually considered to be in the context of a physical or situational threat. 

For example, you might have a fear of flying or public speaking anxiety. In contrast, existential anxiety reflects a deeper type of angst that makes coping with it a more complex endeavor.

Understanding Existential Anxiety

Whether referred to as existential angst, despair, or anxiety, the concept is the same: the idea is that life is inherently pointless. That our existence has no meaning because there are limits or boundaries on it, namely, that we all must die someday.

Existential anxiety tends to arise during transitions and reflects difficulty adapting, often related to losing safety and security. For example, a college student moving away from home or an adult going through a difficult divorce might feel as though the foundation on which their life was built is crumbling. This can lead to questioning the meaning of your existence.

Existentialism emphasizes that we are all free to make choices in life, and with this freedom to make choices comes responsibility. However, given the ultimate fate of death, your actions can appear meaningless when viewed in relation to the bigger picture of your life.

In this way, freedom leads to despair, and the responsibility of this freedom causes anxiety.

No matter what choice we make, it does not change the fact that our time on this earth is limited.

How Existentialists View Anxiety

Existentialists view anxiety in a different way than psychiatrists and psychologists. Rather than perceiving anxiety to be a problem that must be resolved, they view it as an inevitable part of life that everyone will experience, and something that is positive and that can teach us important lessons about life.

They view the ultimate concerns of life as death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. These concerns are thought to cause feelings of dread and angst because we can never be sure that our choices are the right ones, and once a choice is made, the alternative has to be rejected.

How often have you struggled with a decision and feared it was the wrong one? That fear of making the wrong choice reflects angst about freedom related to existential concerns.

Existentialists believe that we have this anxiety or angst because there is no "right" path and no guide to tell us what to do. In essence, each of us must make meaning in our own lives. If this responsibility feels too great, we may retreat into ways of behaving that shield us from this feeling of anxiety.

Existential vs. Neurotic Anxiety

Anxiety in common sense is a problem to be fixed. Psychotherapy and medication are used to treat anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) lists criteria or symptoms that group anxiety into different categories.

In contrast, existentialists view existential anxiety as a normal consequence of human existence, and neurotic anxiety as an avoidance behavior. In other words, if you're worried about the plane crashing or everyone in the audience of your speech laughing at you, then you've successfully distracted yourself from worrying about whether your life has meaning or what will happen after you die.

Clearly, these are two different definitions of anxiety that are not totally incompatible. However, existential anxiety described in this way feels almost more similar to depression than anxiety—perhaps why the terms "angst" and "despair" are often used interchangeably with anxiety in this context.

In 1844, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: "whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way, has learnt the ultimate." This expresses the idea that existential anxiety goes beyond fear about day-to-day troubles. While doctors deal with the medical model and neurotic anxiety, those coming from an existential or phenomenological (experienced-based) approach think of anxiety as necessary.

In this way, existential anxiety is considered a journey, an awareness, a necessary experience, and a complex phenomenon. It arises from awareness of your own freedoms and how life will end for you one day.

The Point to Living

If you struggle with existential anxiety, you might be asking, "What is the point to living?" As you move through transitions in your life and lose the security of a familiar context and structure, you might question the point of life, if in the end, the result is that you die. Why go through the motions?

Various existential writers have considered this question. Journalist and novelist Albert Camus argued that the only way out is to embrace the absurdity of the situation and to rise above it, even if it is only within the context of your own life. In other words, if you are going to be a person in this world, then you need to make a choice to make meaning in your own life, whatever form that takes.

If you're going to be around for 80-odd years, make it worthwhile.

Camus also argued that the ability to have passion for what could otherwise be considered a meaningless life reflects an appreciation for life itself. If you can stop trying to live for the end, or the "goal," and start living for the act of "being" itself, then your life becomes about living it fully, choosing integrity, and being passionate. This sounds not surprisingly like the foundation of mindfulness meditation in the medical model of anxiety.

Overcoming Existential Anxiety

Given that existential anxiety is related to an awareness of the ultimate boundaries in life, which are death and chance, anxiety of this type can be seen as unavoidable rather than pathological. Because of this, each of us must find a way to "live with" this anxiety rather than eliminate it. Or so the existentialists argue.

There are both helpful and unhelpful ways of responding to this type of existential crisis. One is the choice not to live at all or to give up on life.

A second is to become so absorbed in daily distractions that you don't live an authentic life. This is said to leave no room for existential anxiety, but also no room for an authentic life. It's a maladaptive coping or avoidance strategy, in essence. How many people do you know who go through life with "eyes wide shut," never looking at the big picture?

If you've been living your life in this way, avoiding thinking about the ultimate limit, and then something happens—a brush with death or the death of a loved one—how do you respond? According to the existentialists, this may serve as an awakening in terms of your attitude toward life.

This event might move you toward authenticity, which will necessarily also bring anxiety with it. You might have thoughts about the fleetingness of your existence and how you are living it. When you stop taking for granted that you will wake up each day alive, you might experience anxiety, but at the same time deeper meaning.

You might notice that all the day-to-day mundane problems that bothered you so much no longer seem to matter, and all the thoughts and fears and anxiety about the mundane fall away, because you are faced with a much bigger problem. At the end of your life, will any of this matter? Will it matter what career you chose, how much money you had, or what car you drove?

All of these changes may lead to more courageous and authentic ways of responding to this existential crisis. Can you let this anxiety motivate you and guide you toward a more authentic life? What can this anxiety teach you about your relatedness to the world? Pull out a notebook and jot down your thoughts on these last two questions. It's in the answers to these questions that you will find how to cope with existential anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

While there is no specific treatment for dealing with existential anxiety, there are treatments that can be helpful. For example, CBT and medication can help address anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that may accompany existential anxiety. Also, talking to a professional can be very helpful in reducing existential anxiety. If you find yourself grappling with existential angst, whether due to a transition or life-changing event, self-care approaches that focus on finding meaning may also be helpful.

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Article Sources

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  2. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2012.

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  4. Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic reviewJ Consult Clin Psychol. 2010;78(2):169–183. doi:10.1037/a0018555

Additional Reading

  • Längle A. [Anxiety as an Existential Phenomenon. an Existential Analytic Approach to Understanding and Therapy of Anxieties]. Psychother Psychosom Med Psychol. 1997;47(7):227-233.

  • Westman AS. Existential Anxiety as Related to Conceptualization of Self and of Death, Denial of Death, and Religiosity. Psychol Rep. 1992;71(3 Pt 2):1064-1066.