So what if the panic or anxiety is not tied to some recent argument, change, or stressful event? What is if sort of comes out of nowhere? Well, sometimes, anxiety can come up unexpectedly when events in life lead to reflections on “the big picture.”
Existential psychology is concerned with how people experience the human condition. Inevitably, all people will have to consider their mortality. This may come about after a close brush with death, when grieving the loss of a loved one, or just contemplating one’s future. Thinking about one’s own eventual demise naturally produces anxiety-like experiences, such as dread and worry. There is even a technical name for it: “death anxiety.” However, existential anxiety can also pop up in pleasant circumstances. Sometimes nervousness can come with the awareness that no moment lasts forever and even the happiest moment will pass. As humans, we cherish those moments so much that it can be anxiety-provoking to let them go.
Even if we are not reflecting on questions of life and death, existential anxiety can spring up when we think about our goals, value, or plan our future. Victor Frankl famously expressed that people have a “will-to-meaning:” we wish to understand things and we wish for the things we do in life to feel purposeful and meaningful. When jobs, hobbies, relationships, or personal goals start to lose a sense of purpose, angst and malaise can set it. While some of this may sound bleak, existential anxiety can be likened to physical pain we experience when we are injured: it hurts, but it is also sending a valuable message to us.
Take a hypothetical example of a young man, let’s call him “Jack,” who has developed what Erich Fromm would call a pseudo-goal: he’s adopted the idea of becoming a lawyer, just like his father was, and just like his father wanted him to be. This decision was never questioned; the young man never had an opportunity to think whether his own values match this goal. He just pursued the goal diligently, convinced that this must be what he wants. Yet, several years into his practice he finds himself becoming more and more on edge, worried about the smallest things, and unable to sleep at night for no particular reason. Lying awake, he is indecisive and nervous about nothing in particular. Work does not feel fulfilling. He was hoping that achieving this goal would make him whole, but he feels more empty than before. In such a case, the feelings of existential anxiousness, while painful, could actually help by steering him in the direction of self-reflection and evaluation: what are his own goals? Does being a lawyer match his most important values? What does he find personally meaningful? What meaningful actions or roles are missing from his current lifestyle?
Existential anxiety can also be likened to a helpful little animal living in your consciousness. It might be a beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking, Sartre-reading type of animal, but it does a good job (sometimes at the worst possible time) of reminding you that life can be more than routine and mundane tasks, that purpose and aims in life matter and that they won’t create themselves – we have to work hard at creating them. And then we have to work hard at moving towards them.
Essentially, existential anxiety:
- May or may not be triggered by a situation or a stressful event. It is a feeling that comes to most people from time to time.
- There is not necessarily a clear problem tied to existential anxiety. However, it can help us reflect on important questions – why do I do what I do? Why is my work important to me? What is truly meaningful to me? What do I value? What kind of person do I want to be in relationships?
- Sharing existential anxiety with others can help us feel less lonely and more empowered to make authentic choices. However, life will always bring up new issues to ponder about.
- Creating meaningful connections and making choices consistent with one’s values are some of the things that can help address existential anxiety.
Now that we have talked a little bit about examples where anxiety can be uncomfortable, but actually helpful, let’s talk about what happens when anxiety becomes so intense that it starts getting in the way more than helping.
Disordered anxiety. While even disordered anxiety often has some kind of a function, one way to think about disordered or dysfunctional anxiety is the costs of anxiety start to outweigh its functionality. Or, in simpler terms, the potential benefits/useful aspects of anxiety decrease and costs/negative consequences of anxiety increase. Disordered anxiety can block us from reaching our goals more often than it helps us to reach them. It is the fire alarm that won’t turn off. It is the fire alarm that rings very loud regardless of whether you’ve burnt your toast or your house is on fire: its sensors are off. It senses threat and danger everywhere, even in places that are safe. Imagine it as a voice belonging to a very scared creature who won’t calm down even though you’ve studied enough for the exam, and keeps waking you up at night screaming that you are doomed to fail.
There are different ways that this can manifest. For example, there several specific patterns of anxiety that come up over and over, such as social anxiety disorder, specific phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and so on. The threat the person experiences in each of these disordered patterns is a little bit different. When a person experiences severe social anxiety, for example, they are often fearful of other people judging them or excluding them. This worry thought can evolve and take a life of its own, leading to other scary possibilities, “what if no one likes me?” “What if my friends just pretend to like me?” “what is if I can’t find a partner?” “what if I will be alone forever?”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder also tend to come with significant anxiety. Since PTSD is a disorder that occurs after a person experiences a traumatic event, such as an assault or a car accident, the anxiety part of PTSD often has to do with sense of threat and danger to one’s life or well-being. Often, the person may come to fear things that used to feel safe: walking down the street, if they were involved in a mugging; driving, if they were involved in a car accident; and so on. Often, in PTSD the anxiety generalizes – the person becomes afraid of reminders of the trauma, even if these reminders in and of themselves are not dangerous. For example, a veteran with a history of trauma may become easily startled by loud noises on the street because they remind him or her of the trauma memory.
Disordered anxiety can also occur as part of other types of mental health concerns, such as depression. While the person’s main difficulty might be feeling low and blue, they could find themselves worried and anxious in a way they weren’t before – worrying about being “boring,” worrying about their job prospects declining, and so on.
Basically, the disordered anxiety is anxiety working over-time: it generates thoughts (worries, prediction of being rejected, expectations of failure), feelings (nervousness, angst), and physical states (being tense, easily startled, stomach upset, difficulty concentrating) that are out of proportion to the realistic possibility of a threat. For example, going to a party to meet new people does present a possibility that some people you meet may not like you. However, anxiety will ignore other possibilities: that there are people at the party who may feel neutral towards you or find you interesting/funny/etc. Disordered anxiety will also magnify or catastrophize the impact. If there is a new person you meet at the party and they don’t like you for one reason or another, it is unlikely to have any significant impact on your health, goals, work, or close relationships. Disordered anxiety, however, is likely to spin a doom and gloom web of thoughts in front of our eyes, so that a trivial event seems to lead to all kinds of tragedies in the future: having no friends at all, being lonely forever, and so on. Put simply, disordered anxiety overestimates danger and underestimates our internal and external resources.
Understanding that anxiety is not just one ‘thing’ is pivotal to making informed decisions about what to actually do about painful anxious feelings. For instance, if we are dealing with helpful, functional anxiety but we mistake it for being disordered or dysfunctional, we might put ourselves on the dangerous path of trying to eliminate something that is actually valuable and helpful. On the other hand, if a person is experiencing disordered anxiety, but mistakes it for typical, functional anxiety, they may feel helpless; they may not realize that help can be available to address their emotional suffering.
Basically, disordered anxiety:
- Is often not proportional to the situation, context, or event. The anxiety is often excessive or overwhelming.
- Often leads to avoidance of people, places, or situations that are feared. Impairs our goals and actions.
- When reassured, the anxiety does not calm or only calms for a very short amount of time.
How do we tell what type of anxiety we might be having? First of all, people can experience all these different types of anxiety – sometimes even all in one day! It’s important to know that they are not mutually exclusive. Someone with social anxiety could have a bout of existential dread. Or a panic attack after getting bad news about their job. Or perfectly functional worry about the surgery they have coming up that helps them prepare. One difference among all these types is that disordered anxiety is more rare. Functional anxiety is a daily occurrence for most people. And existential anxiety can show up without an invitation. In the next article, we will talk about how psychotherapy, art, and dance can help figure this out.
Illustrations by Armin Mortazavi, https://arminmortazavi.com.