Key Takeaways

  • Although it’s not an officially recognized mental health condition, existential anxiety affects many people. It causes a fixation on life’s big questions, like the meaning of life and life after death.
  • Having occasional existential anxiety doesn’t mean you have a mental health condition. But if you can’t control your anxious thoughts and they’re negatively impacting your daily life, it may be time to seek professional help.
  • Fortunately, there are effective treatments available for anxiety of all kinds These may include talk therapy, lifestyle modifications, and/or medication.

Over the past few years, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people report experiencing something called “existential anxiety.” While not a diagnostic term, it refers to intense worry about things like the meaning of life and what happens after death. 

Of course, most people ponder these big questions from time to time. You may wonder about the reason for your existence or why we’re all here in the first place. But this is different from living with chronic existential anxiety. For people affected by it, existential anxiety can create deep worry that impacts their ability to live their lives. Fortunately, like other forms of anxiety, you can manage your symptoms with the right support.

What is existential anxiety?

When something sad or stressful happens, we often look for reasons why. Humans are wired to try to make sense of their environments. This is because understanding the source of harm is an important part of making sure it doesn’t happen again. But sometimes, this insight is beyond our reach. We don’t have concrete answers to existential questions like:

  • Is there life after death?
  • Why was I born?
  • What is the purpose of my life?
  • Will anyone remember me when I’m gone?
  • Why does suffering exist?
  • Am I really who I think I am?

Some people are naturally curious about these questions and enjoy reflecting on them. Other people find answers to these questions in their religious or spiritual traditions and philosophies. But people with existential anxiety fixate on these questions in distressing ways. They often spend lots of time looking for answers they may never find. 

This, in turn, creates a cycle of worry that negatively affects their mental health. When this happens, it’s best to seek an evaluation from a mental health professional. They can screen you for other mental health concerns that are similar to existential anxiety. This includes conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD ) or other anxiety disorders.

What causes existential anxiety?

There isn’t a single cause of existential anxiety. Like other forms of anxiety, it can stem from a number of causes

Causes of existential anxiety may include:

  • Experiencing an event that causes you to question your identity (like a divorce or job loss)
  • Grieving the unexpected loss of a friend or loved one
  • Experiencing a change in ability that impacts your ability to do things you used to do (like an injury or chronic illness)
  • Going through major life changes or transitions, especially when it affects your purpose (like retiring from professional life)
  • Becoming aware of your own mortality
  • Having a mental health condition like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Anxiety can be a normal, natural human response to stress. After all, it’s what made us scared of lions lurking in the bushes and prompted us to run to safety. People can have times when they experience increased anxiety for all sorts of reasons. 

So if you’ve ever felt anxious about existential questions, especially after a traumatic event, you’re not alone. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be living with a clinical anxiety disorder or other mental health condition to ask for help.

What are the symptoms of existential anxiety?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by chronic worry about existential questions, you might be living with existential anxiety. Sometimes, people refer to this experience as an existential crisis. This can take many forms and occur for different reasons. But existential anxiety typically has some common signs and symptoms

You may be experiencing existential anxiety if:

  • Your mind is frequently occupied by thoughts of your own mortality, freedom, or authenticity.
  • You often wonder “What’s the point of all this?”
  • You feel depressed and unmotivated.
  • You doubt that your life has meaning.
  • You find yourself questioning your life choices and wondering if you’re on the “right” path.
  • You feel regret about things you did or said in the past.
  • You no longer enjoy spending time in social settings, preferring instead to spend time alone.
  • You seek constant reassurance from others in an attempt to quiet your worries.
  • You feel like you can’t control your anxious thoughts.
  • You’ve experienced thoughts of self-harm and/or suicide

Most effective treatment options for existential anxiety

Existential anxiety, like other forms of anxiety, can be treated with a combination of therapy, lifestyle changes, and/or medication. Your existential anxiety treatment plan will be based on your unique needs. 

Treatment for existential anxiety might include: 

  • Existential therapy: This type of therapy deals with some of the most universal human challenges: loneliness, loss, personal freedom, responsibility, and mortality. Existential therapy can also address symptoms of co-occurring mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps people identify and stop unhelpful thought patterns and replace unwanted behaviors with healthy coping strategies. It is also helpful for overcoming symptoms of trauma, such as existential anxiety.
  • Lifestyle changes: Certain self-care practices like journaling, meditating, and spending time with your support network can help reduce anxiety of all kinds. 
  • Medication: While there is no medication that’s approved to treat existential anxiety specifically, your provider may recommend medication if you have a clinical anxiety disorder or other mental health concerns.

Find a therapist with Rula

If you’re living with existential anxiety and you can’t seem to regain control of your worries, know that you’re not alone and help is available. 

At Rula, we believe that treatment for anxiety of all kinds should be accessible to anyone who needs it. When you need support, our therapist-matching program can help you find a therapist who takes your insurance in just a few minutes. From there, our team can help you make your first appointment and answer any questions throughout your treatment journey. 

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