Existential Dread (A complete guide)

What Is Existential Dread?

Existential dread happens when life’s uncertainty or absurdity become too much to bear.

The weight of it all sends you into a spiral of feeling helpless, apathetic and may cause you to lose enjoyment in doing the things that you like most.

Existential dread may also cause you to have trouble falling asleep and feeling completely relaxed.

Existentialism can manifest itself in any of the following ways:

  • Existential dread: the dread of trudging through a meaningless existence
  • Existential anxiety: the panic or anxiety of needing to find meaning in a world that seems meaningless
  • Existential depression: the depression that comes with the belief that nothing you do matters

“Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.” – Viktor Frankl

Every now and then, we’re going about our daily lives until suddenly, an intrusive thought hits us like a truck: “What is the meaning of my life?” “Do I have a purpose?” “What’s the point of all this?”

It’s natural for thoughts like this to come and go, but often, these thoughts sink deeper into our minds and overwhelm us with despair and other negative feelings.

Sometimes, it feels like you could be having an existential crisis every single day. When everything seems absurd, pointless, nonsensical, and you don’t feel like it’ll ever change, that can fuel unpleasant emotions.

While you’re not alone in experiencing these feelings, it’s important to remember that existential feelings can pass.

Below, we’ll talk more about existential dread and some of the ways you can cope with the feelings associated with it.

Are Some More Prone to Experiencing Existential Dread?

Some people are predisposed toward experiencing existential dread.

This can be caused by what stage you’re at in life, what media sources you’re exposed to and the people that you’re surrounded by on a daily basis.

“I believe people experience existential dread or flashes when they’re feeling a need for change or absence of direction from something in their life. Or on the other hand, it could be inspired by a recent lesson in a philosophy class, a book you’re reading or even online networking,” said Lindsay Cooke, an authorized mental health professional.

The feelings of existential dread may lead to more despondency, diminished enthusiasm and less of a desire to build connections with other people. 

Working Through the Dread

In the event that you feel overpowered by existential feelings that disrupt your day, it’s important to remember that you’re not the only person experiencing these feelings.

Sitting with the discomfort that surrounds your existential dread can be an important step to understanding that this feeling is temporary and that it will indeed pass before too long.

Some techniques for working through existential dread are discussed in further detail below: 

Concentrate on yourself:

“Grasp who and where you are. One of the key establishments in existential psychotherapy is the conviction that we shouldn’t depend on the approval of others. How liberating is that? You may wind up feeling the crushing weight of continually attempting to satisfy desires that aren’t even your own,” said Nash, a licensed mental health therapist.

“Challenge that by sitting down and making a ‘Legitimate List’ where you list all of your best qualities as well as your less favorable ones. It’s okay too to note qualities that you wish to have in the future, but it’s important to focus on where you are right now so you can work on yourself as you are.”

Practice self compassion:

Studies recommend the most ideal approach to adapt to these sorts of emotions is to use care aptitudes, for example, reflection, deep breathing, and grounding.

“There are some incredible applications that help with meditation, for example, Headspace or Calm. They’re free and assist you with building the ability of reflection,” stated Cooke. “I also believe that trying to figure out what exactly is causing you to feel this existential dread can be useful in helping yourself work through these challenging times.”

Help others:

While it’s important to focus on caring for yourself, it’s also important to work on building meaningful connections with other people.

Having a support system in your life will make some of the most challenging parts of dealing with existentialism seem less frightening.

It can be helpful to talk to other people about your feelings and why you’re feeling them as well.

With modern technology, it’s easier than ever to connect with people and there’s always the option of meeting someone for coffee or food as a brief distraction from your existential feelings.

When you feel particularly isolated, make sure that you reach out to other people so you can feel less alone while you’re dealing with these difficult feelings.

If you’re an introvert or an extrovert, it’s equally important to connect with other people so you can feel safe, secure and valid in feeling everything that you’re going through.

Additionally, it’s important to remember to enjoy yourself even when you’re feeling these feelings.

If you don’t, it may heighten the intensity of your existential dread. 

Why Does This Happen?

An existential crisis seldom appears on its own. It can usually be traced back to something, such as an unhelpful way of thinking, a life changing event, or trauma. 

These crises occur, in theory, when we face vague aspects of existence like finality, infinity, or mortality.

It can come in the form of questions like:

  • “What is my purpose?”
  • “Where is my place in this vast world?”
  • “If I’m just going to die, why does anything I do matter?”

Depression, Anxiety, and Other Mental Health Struggles

Existential crises can accompany mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder, among others.

However, the question of whether existential dread causes other mental health conditions or if it’s the other way around is still up for debate. 

Talking about our feelings gives them validity and helps prevent them from consuming us.

If someone is overwhelmed by an existential crisis, it makes sense to assume that those very thoughts cause depressive symptoms like apathy, loss of pleasure, prolonged periods of sadness, and more.  

But on the other hand, if someone already has major depression, that can lead to feelings of disconnect with the world.

That disconnect can trigger questions like “What is the meaning of my existence?” and “Do I matter?” All we know for sure is that existential crises have links to mental health, but whether they are a symptom or a cause is still being researched.

Life Events

Traumatic life events like living through a natural disaster, undergoing major surgery or watching a loved one go through cancer treatments and pass away are likely sources for existential dread.

This can also apply to other life changes like moving to a new city, breaking up with your partner or getting fired from a job.

When we encounter these events, it’s natural to wonder what our purpose is in life.

Though examining this concept can easily walk us directly into an existential crisis. 

How Can I Deal With An Existential Crisis?

Many of us feel like our efforts are pointless and like there’s no motivating factor worthy of our energy.

In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl suggests that existential frustration can often be solved by implementing changes in life that provide a person a fuller sense of meaning.

Luckily, we all have inner tools to help us overcome existential crises in some way, shape or form. 

Separating Ourselves From Our Thoughts

Separating ourselves from our thoughts can be helpful in staving off existential dread.

We have the ability to take a step back from disheartening situations and reflect on what we’re going through.

Distractions can also help by diverting our time and attention to other things instead of remaining focused on negative existential thoughts.

Distractions can include anything from exercising to reading to playing an instrument.

As long as you’re engaged in activity, it’s likely to help eliminate your feelings of existential dread. 

Setting Goals

Setting goals is one of the best ways to give us a sense of purpose in life. 

Goals can range from finishing a book to cleaning out the garage to vying for a new job.

If you’ve ever wanted to try something new, but have never found the time to do it, setting a goal might help steer you away from getting lost in your own existential dread.

A goal will give you a sense of purpose and fulfillment that will likely counter any feelings of existential dread. 

Seeking Help

Help comes in many forms, and reaching out to someone for help is very much encouraged.

Whether it’s a friend, a family member or a friend, it’s highly Dealing with these thoughts on your own is hard, so take some time and voice your concerns to a trusted friend or family member.

You can also seek help from a mental health professional who will likely have experience in helping others cope with existential dread.

Talking about our feelings gives them validity and helps prevent them from consuming us.

Additionally, helping others when they need it most can make you feel a lot less alone. 

FAQs on Existential Dread

What causes existential dread?

Existential dread can be caused by anything ranging from a traumatic event to a bad day at work.

There is no singular cause of existential dread in our lives.

While existential dread is common enough that several people experience, more research needs to be done on what exactly causes these feelings to arise.

Are some people more likely to experience existential dread than others?

People who suffer from anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions are more likely to experience existential dread than others.

That being said, existential dread is a fairly common experience and one that most people will feel at some point in their lives.

It’s important to be mindful of the temporary nature of existential dread.

Remembering this will help you cope with the unpleasant feelings that existential dread carries.

Interested in Learning More? Check out these books on existential dread: