What is existential dread?

What is existential dread?

Have you ever felt fearful or anxious about the fact that you will, at some point, face death? In the midst of this crisis, did you ponder the meaning of life itself, if it inevitably comes to an end? Did this make you feel sad and uncertain? This phenomenon is known as existential dread.

It involves feeling fearful, upset, or insecure about the human condition and the meaning of life. Sometimes, this recognition of our existence and the thought processes that arise as a result may send people into a spiral known as an existential crisis.

During an existential crisis, further internal probing may occur about one's own purpose in life, and possibly even act as a ‘turning point’, from which that person decides to take action on certain realizations they have come to during the crisis.

What causes existential dread?

Existential dread commonly arises around periods of change or situations that elicit strong emotions, when people are faced with exploring their mortality, the meaning of life, or their perception of their own identity. For example, when faced with the death or illness of a loved one; being forced to change their job or where they live suddenly; or after having an experience that made them realize something about themselves that wasn’t clear before.

Certain conditions such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may also trigger people to ruminate on thoughts of their existence and the meaning of life more frequently or intensely.

We don’t know exactly why existential dread happens, but sometimes people find that moments of existential dread can bring them clarity about their values or identity, or give them a new appreciation for life.

Examples of lived experience with existential dread

Reddit user @ImKorosenai wrote: “ I don't want to die. Why do I not get to choose? Why can I not live as long as I want? Why do I not get to live until 2300 and play the new games out and watch the newest shows? It just all feels unnatural and it's making me very nihilistic. Every time I look at my dog I start crying because I know he will die within 10 years. I just cried about an hour ago taking it all in.”

Another user, @jihyz, expressed that: “I feel like there’s no point and that I am a string of hay in a haysack that it’ll eventually be blown away by wind, and is insignificant. I have attachment issues because I know anyone could die at any moment.”

Writer Blair Kemp described her experience in a moment of existential dread in a blog post: “I became obsessed with how I spent my time… I’d been GIFTED this one life, and how DARE I waste each day sinking deeper into my couch cushions, frittering my PRECIOUS brain cells on trash TV? It was time to change the world.”

How to overcome existential dread

Getting over the conscious thought that life feels meaningless and that you will one day cease to exist doesn’t seem like an easy feat, and for some, these themes may continue to resurface throughout life. However, that doesn’t mean that it needs to interfere with everyday life. Here are a few tips and tricks that may help pull you through the dark days.

Know your triggers

If doom-scrolling on social media makes you feel like you’re wasting your life away, or watching the news makes you lose faith in humanity, try to limit your exposure to these triggers. Taking away the potential sources that might incite existential thoughts that fill you with dread might help keep them at bay in the first place.

If you’re unsure about what triggers these thoughts for you, it might be helpful to use a health tracking app. Human Health is a free app that allows you to keep a record of your symptoms (like existential dread) and treatments (such as avoid social media). You can then use this data over time to inform how your symptoms change.

We recognize that in this day and age, it’s pretty impossible to limit your exposure to social media or news headlines when they are seemingly everywhere. But acknowledging how they can make you feel or think can be the first step to making changes that help improve your mindset.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is all about appreciating the present moment for what it is, and grounding yourself in the here and now rather than the past or the future.

These types of meditations often encourage the acknowledgement of unwanted or troubling thoughts, but emphasize that we should let go of them, rather than harboring them and allowing them to take control of our time or our mindset.

Here’s a link to a playlist of mindfulness meditations on YouTube.

Talk therapy

Verbalizing how you feel might help you explore the meaning of these thoughts and feelings further. It’s important to note that you’re not alone in this – many people experience existential dread at some point in their lives.

Keeping everything inside without voicing it out loud just leaves room for the thoughts to grow and get louder, which might make you feel worse. That’s why it might help to chat with someone you know and trust about how you’ve been feeling. They might be able to help you realize that what you’re feeling is normal, could help contextualize your thoughts to your specific situation, and get you through the feelings of fear or uncertainty.

A trained therapist might also be able to add clarity and insight to your thoughts and feelings, and give you further tips and information about existential dread and how to overcome it.

Do what makes you feel alive

There is no greater counter for feeling like your world is ending than indulging in the things that make you feel grateful and happy to be alive.

Share moments with your favorite people often, find joy in going on adventures and trying new things, or just engage with the simple things you know can make you smile – a comforting meal, a warm hug, a good book.

If we only have a finite time to live, then why waste a single precious moment in denying ourselves that pleasure?

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  1. Existential dread. American Dictionary of Psychology. URL: https://dictionary.apa.org/existential-dread
  2. Andrews, M. (2016). The existential crisis. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 21(1), 104–109. https://doi.org/10.1037/bdb0000014
  3. To Be Or Not To Be, That Is The Obsession: Existential and Philosophical OCD. International OCD Foundation. URL:https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/to-be-or-not-to-be-that-is-the-obsession-existential-and-philosophical-ocd/

Olivia Holland
Medical Writer