Imagine laying in bed at night, hoping to drift away into a peaceful slumber.
Your brain has other plans. It thwarts your best attempts at rest with racing thoughts about life, death, and the nature of the universe.
“What’s the meaning of it all?” you wonder as your brain highlights scenario after scenario showcasing loss, emptiness, and the futile struggle for existence.
If this sounds familiar, you may have experienced existential dread.
What Is Existential Dread?
Existential dread is an overwhelming feeling of anxiety when pondering life’s most profound questions. When you dig down into the essence of existence and discover no genuine meaning, you can be overcome with thoughts on the futility of doing anything because nothing seems to matter.
What Causes Existential Dread?
Dr. Cynthia Shaw, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and owner of Authentically Living Psychological Services, says existential dread is “a confrontation with one’s existence and the many limitations that encompass our humanness.”
She describes the four recognized limitations: mortality and our physical limitations, isolation, freedom versus responsibility, and the idea of meaning. These four big ideas are common in the human experience.
Dr. Kara Nassour, LPC from Shaded Bough Counseling, explains further. “We are free to act as we wish, but that also means we are the only ones ultimately responsible for our choices.” She says. “We have no external guide or predetermined purpose to affirm whether we are doing right or wrong. This causes dread and anxiety.”
Dana M. Manzo, a licensed psychotherapist and Dean of Campus Wellness and Student Development at Beacon College, stresses that it happens to everyone.
“Existential dread is a natural part of the human experience,” she says. However, she stresses that it doesn’t have to be negative. “It can be an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.”
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How To Cope with Existential Dread
Coping with existential dread isn’t easy. Ignoring the intrusive thoughts our minds latch onto is tough, especially when we can’t convince ourselves it’s wrong.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There are ways to handle the dread and live a full, happy life despite it.
A slightly unhealthy way to deal with existential dread is to ignore it. Stop thinking about the distant future and things outside of your control.
Joni Ogle, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at The Heights Treatment, says knowing when to let things go is essential. “There’s no point ruminating on the “what ifs” and worrying about what could have been,” she says.
Focus on your current life and situation. Get engaged in hobbies, take on more projects at work, and spend time with friends and family.
Although ignoring it won’t make it go away, it will allow you to live a full life despite it.
Shift Your Mindset
One thing that helps me cope with constant existential dread is reframing it. Things may not matter on a grand scale, but that doesn’t mean they don’t count on a small scale.
In the famous Buffy spin-off Angel, the title character faced an existential crisis. He lost sight of his why and felt hopeless in continuing the mission. If evil is always on our tails, how will we ever win? Why do we keep fighting?
In a pinnacle episode, Angel had an epiphany.
“If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do.”
He means that it doesn’t matter if things don’t matter on a grand scale. It doesn’t matter if he saves the world. What matters is that he keeps fighting, keeps trying, and keeps improving.
A similar story showcasing how what we do matters makes its rounds through the internet every few years.
The Starfish story follows a little boy walking along a beach filled with starfish who washed ashore in an abnormally high tide. There are millions of starfish drying out in the sand, and the little boy picks them up, one by one, and tosses them back into the ocean, where they have a chance to survive.
A man quietly observes for a few minutes and then approaches the boy. “Why are you doing this,” he asks. “There are millions of starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.”
The boy grabs a starfish and chucks it into the ocean. He then turned to the man and said, “It made a difference for that one.”
These two stories illustrate how a mindset shift can help you cope with existential dread. In the grand scheme of things, maybe nothing matters. But they do matter in the here and now and to the individuals you help.
Some feel existential dread because they lack meaning in their life. To overcome it, you must find that ultimate purpose.
Becca Smith, Chief Clinical Officer at Basepoint Academy, says, “One great way to cope with existential dread is to participate in activities that make you feel fulfilled and connected to something larger than yourself.”
Many find comfort in religious practice, faith, or spirituality. Dabble in these to see if it’s the right path for you.
Religion isn’t suitable for everyone, and that’s okay too. Millions of people find meaning outside of a religion or faith group. Some turn to science, feeling comfort in understanding the universe’s inner workings, while others discover their true purpose outside of any vast structure the world might have.
Megan Tangradi, Clinical Director at Achieve Wellness & Recovery, offers advice on finding a purpose outside of spirituality. “Find purpose in your past, relish the moment of being alive right now, and look forward to potential positive outcomes in the future,” she advises.
Tangradi adds that you can also consider your impact on others. Making a difference for someone else can give you a sense of purpose in your own life.
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Explore Your Feelings
When dealing with existential dread, it may help to explore exactly what you’re feeling and why. Feelings and emotions can be complicated. We don’t always understand the deeper meaning behind our feelings and aren’t always sure why we reacted a certain way to something.
Exploring your feelings isn’t always easy. You sometimes must dive deep into your inner psyche, face past trauma, or uncover parts of yourself you’ve tried to hide.
All of that is okay. Although challenging, it can help you live a life more true to yourself and overcome your feelings of existential dread.
Steve Carleton, Executive Clinical Director at Gallus Detox, says people can cope with existential dread by practicing mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is when you become aware of your thoughts and feelings in the present moment. Taking time to notice, acknowledge, and accept your feelings can help you better cope with existential dread,” he explains.
Carleton also promotes journaling as a way to cope with existential dread. Journaling is a tool to help you with some of the other practices on this list.
It promotes mindfulness by allowing you to be mindful of your thoughts, emotions, and experiences and enable you to explore your feelings through writing. Carelton states journal writing can help you “understand why certain situations make you feel the way you do.” He adds that it can also help you learn to manage your emotions.
Journaling can also help you shift your mindset or find meaning by exploring fresh perspectives. It allows you time to reflect on your values and beliefs and enables you to identify the causes of your personal existential dread.
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Meditation can help you gain mindfulness, shift your mindset, and find inner peace. The practice grounds us and allows us to be present in the here and now rather than constantly looking toward what might come next.
Accept the Unknown
We’re tiny specks floating among the vast, unknown universe. We may never unravel the secrets of far-off galaxies, parallel universes, or what lies beyond.
It’s okay not to know everything. We don’t need to understand how a light switch works to flip it on or how a car works to turn the key and drive.
Accept that there are some things about the universe we will never know, and dedicate your life to finding meaning in the smaller realm of our personal existence.
Engage with Others
Humans are social creatures. We crave connection.
That connection can help us overcome intrusive thoughts of existential dread. Manzo says talking to others who can offer a non-judgmental ear can help you work through the disturbing thoughts and emotions you’re experiencing.
Dr. Shaw says that sharing your experience with others offers comfort. “Existential dread is something we all experience as human beings,” she explains. “There can be immense comfort in sharing our thoughts and feelings with others around us. Learning that we are not in isolation can feel extremely validating.”
Carleton agrees that friends and family are vital to overcoming existential dread. “Meaningful connections can give us a sense of purpose and belonging, which can provide us with the courage to confront our fears and anxieties,” he says. “Building meaningful connections can help us focus on the things that truly matter, such as our values and relationships with others. This helps to put our worries into perspective and reminds us to prioritize what truly matters in life.”
Do Something Different
The hustle and bustle of daily life can be draining for all of us. After the hour-long commute to sit in a pointless meeting, only to come home to a pile of chores that never ends, we may ponder the point of it all.
Manzo says engaging in new things can help. “Try something new, such as travel, volunteering, or learning a new skill,” she says. “These experiences can provide a sense of novelty and adventure, which can be refreshing during a time of uncertainty.”
Maybe it’s time to explore a hobby you gave up long ago, book that weekend trip away, or try that hip new restaurant you’ve been drooling over.
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Design your Life
“Is this the life that you lead, or the life that’s led for you?”
Many of us get caught up in the life script. We do what’s expected. After high school, we go to college or join the workforce. We couple up, buy a house, have kids, and work our miserable jobs until we hopefully retire. Then we watch our children follow the same path.
Is this the life you truly wanted?
Dr. Nassour thinks designing your own life can help you overcome feelings of existential dread. She says you should ask yourself hard questions, like “What do you want your relationships, your work, your hobbies, and achievements to look like? What kind of life would you look back on and say you were happy with how you spent your time?”
She stresses that these questions are difficult to answer and could even take years. Some answers may change as you grow and discover who you really are.
Tangradi agrees and says you should take time to remember your core values, which can rekindle your sense of purpose.
As far as we know, you only live once, so you may as well spend the time doing what you want to do rather than living someone else’s dream life.
See a Therapist
When all else fails, therapy can help.
A trained therapist can help you work through intrusive thoughts and feelings, understand your emotions, and even help you find purpose when you feel stuck in the dark.
Seeing a therapist can help you shift your mindset and gain a fresh perspective, alleviating the existential dread you’re experiencing.
To Dread is Human
Existential dread is part of the human experience. The fact that we have minds that can even comprehend these vast and unknown questions is amazing.
Unfortunately, it can become too much, and when existential dread sets in, it can be hard to find meaning in anything.
Hopefully, these tips will help you overcome the very human experience of questioning your meaning and purpose. Remember, if nothing matters, all that matters is what we do. So do good in the world, and you’ll be surprised at how the existential dread melts away.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.