August 8, 2023

Coping with Existential Anxiety

By Stephen Jennings
Anxiety & Depression
Mental Health & Wellbeing

It’s easy to get lost in the big questions

What’s the meaning of life? How do I live with the knowledge I will die someday? How can we matter in an infinite universe? The list is endless; we will never run out of existential issues. When faced with this limitless sea of angst, how do we cope? Better yet, how do we go for a swim in that ocean and still find a way to ground ourselves and get back to reality?

When we enter deeper waters, we must know the location of two things: ourselves and the shore. In other words, two questions can ground us as we consider existential issues: “Who am I?” and “What’s important?” By developing our understanding of our identity, we can dive into the existential without feeling stranded. We can know our limits and where we want to go, and when we need a break, we know how to return and rest in our surroundings. Determining what we give meaning and value in our surroundings lets us keep sight of the tangible, even when we consider the abstract. Sometimes the beauty of everyday things can make existential issues feel less enormous. Most importantly, we can consider these two questions to build our sense of agency in the process of meaning-making and manage anxiety as we consider the nature of existence.

What’s Important?

Often “What’s important?” is the more straightforward determination. Sure, the abstract and philosophical matter, but none can compare to the importance of present, living experience. Nothing I conjure in my mind compares to the tangible beauty of fine sand sifting through my fingers, warm sunlight toasting my back, or the pitter-patter of a tiny sandpiper sprinting from the tide. These living details are our landmarks on the beach. We can choose which matters most to us, which ones we’ll orient ourselves by and return to when we finish swimming. We may not always choose what details form our lives, but we can always decide which ones we give meaning to. Also, this is not to suggest that existential questions are not worth engaging with. On the contrary, recognizing the beauty in the world around us allows us to consider existential angst more and use those questions to motivate ourselves to engage even more deeply with our lives. In the same way that grounding exercises can help us cope with generalized anxiety, earthly glimpses of beauty can ground us existentially and remind us of the inherent value of life.

Who Am I?

“Who am I?” poses a greater challenge. Much like our surroundings, there are things about and within ourselves we cannot always control. Family history, disability, race, the people we’re attracted to, all these factors and others are unchosen components of our identity. However, here too, the things we choose to give meaning and the values by which we direct ourselves give us agency in how we define ourselves. Existential anxiety has a way of making us feel tiny and insignificant. Still, by choosing to hone in on the beauty within us, the parts of ourselves we give meaning to, we can again ground ourselves in the here and now. And, when we know who we are and where we’re going, navigating existential waters feels less daunting, and we understand how and when to get back to shore.

Preparing to Swim Again

So, next time you feel you’re getting sucked into the tide of existential anxiety, take a moment, look around you, and name three things you find beautiful and meaningful. If you have the chance, go for a walk, and let yourself notice whatever details stick out to you. Then, try to name three beautiful and meaningful things about yourself. Maybe it’s a choice you’re proud of, the way you see the world, or even the fact that you’re willing to dive into life’s more difficult questions. Once you’ve taken that time to ground yourself, you can dip your toes back in the water and maybe even swim with a little more confidence.

If this post resonates with you, don’t hesitate to reach out and get connected with a therapist who can provide support on your journey of self-discovery and existential exploration. Taking this step can lead to greater clarity, understanding, and well-being in your life. Start your path to self-empowerment today!

Written By

Stephen Jennings

Ready to set up your first appointment?

If you haven’t been in touch with us yet, you can get started by filling out our intake form.