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Existential Dread | Everything You Need to Know

Existential dread is a term used for feelings of unrest about our power to choose, our mortality, and the meaning of life. It is also referred to as existential angst.

This angst is caused by thoughts such as: life at its very core is pointless, our existence is meaningless, and we are all going to die one day.

Existential dread is related to a simple question: what is the meaning of life?

This is a question most people start asking at some point in their life (however, there are many that never ask this question. Ignorance is bliss, am I right guys?).

Many times we ask it when we deal without a serious life event, like a near-death experience or the untimely death of a loved one.

If we know we are going to die one day, then why should we finish this history paper or make sure the PowerPoint for our presentation is good? If I don’t find anything I’m passionate about, then what’s the point of even living?

Existential dread, as it pertains to mental health, can cause feelings of uneasiness and apathy. We live in a world where the popular expectation is that we work our asses off the majority of our lives so we can “have a better life one day.”

Many of us suspect that perhaps there isn’t any pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. 

It seems, as time goes on, more of us struggle with being happy and content with what we have. 

It’s probably because we’ve gotten the “cash and prizes” of life (the girl or boy of your dreams, mansions, a big boat, a successful career) and found ourselves still wanting.

We have become aware that our outward circumstances don’t always reflect how we feel on the inside.

Perception is everything. Existential dread is a mindset that produces thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings turn into actions that can turn into behaviors. Feelings of boredom, cynicism, hopelessness, and loneliness can intensify over any considerable amount of time.  

Self-growth requires that we face the facts about life — and not fear life. There are 2 things that are certain in life: change is constant, and we will all die one day (and taxes — amiright guys?).

So what do we do about this existential dread business? In this article, you’ll learn about existential dread, what it looks like, what contributes to it, and positive ways to deal with it.

Plus, you’re going to get my existential dread experience, and hopefully, most of you will find it relatable.

What is Existential Dread?

To put it simply, existential dread is when you question life itself and your purpose in it. This often happens after a crisis, where your personal values or self-identity are challenged.

Most of you who are reading this probably have a certain level of comfort, security, and safety. However, the fabric of our existence can be ripped in an instant!

When our life circumstances are altered quickly and drastically by an event or transition, many of us have trouble adapting to the aftermath.

These events could include the following:

  • A young person moving out of state for the first time to attend a university
  • A person in their 40s going through a divorce
  • Losing a loved one
  • Getting a life-changing injury
  • Getting diagnosed with a terminal illness

Confusion and feelings of despair can become overwhelming. Many of us may start to view everything in life as negative. It may be a hard mental space to pull yourself out of. 

Symptoms of existential dread include:

  • Constant worry
  • Obsessing about the future
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Isolating

Existential dread doesn’t have to be all “doom and gloom.” It can be seen in a better light! For those who consider themselves existentialists, existential dread can mark the beginning of a journey.

It’s a necessary and inevitable experience full of wonder, hope, and ultimately passion and purpose.

Different Forms of Existential Dread 

There are different types of existential dread. Here are a couple of them.

Freedom and Responsibility

Ah yes, free will. We’ve all got it, and if you’re an existentialist, you put great emphasis on it.

What would life be without free will? We’d all walk around like robots, and life wouldn’t be life.

More spiritual people would say that god (their creator) gave them free will and their ultimate goal is to align their will with their creator’s will.

That gives the spiritual-minded person a sense of purpose. Purpose is everything in life — without it, we just roam around going through the motions.

Let’s look at this through the veil of existential dread. We all know that with freedom comes great responsibility.

Many of us are aware of this, and it heavily influences the choices we make. However, someone experiencing existential dread dwells on the fact that death is inevitable.

So, who cares, and what does it matter what we do in life? We don’t care how our actions and choices may affect the world around us because it’s all going to crumble away at some point.

Freedom and responsibility then cause dread, depression, and anxiety. Many people are obsessed with the results of their choices and actions, making sure they made the “right” choice.

In the light of existential dread, there is no “right” choice.

There are many negative ways to deal with existential dread that are associated with free will and responsibility. A person who doesn’t see the point of any of it may often turn to addictive substances such as heroin and alcohol.

Sex and gambling addictions may rule someone’s life because we could all get hit by an asteroid tomorrow, so why not go out with a bang every day until then!

If you want to turn this type of thinking into something positive, then you can. It’s all about passion. Find something you’re passionate about and do it.

Make it your job at any cost.

Regardless of how much money you make, if you do what you love, you’ll be happy during the journey that ultimately leads to your death.

And isn’t happiness what we’re all ultimately looking for when looking for a sense of purpose? If we feel purposeless, we often feel unhappy. Purpose can lead to happiness even if we reconcile ourselves to the fact that one day we will die.

Being 100% authentic

This reminds me of Dave Chapelle’s, “When keeping it real goes wrong” bit.

Being 100% authentic can lead to tons of anxiety. Staring the fact that your life is fleeting in the eye can keep you from making any decisions whatsoever.

You may hide in your house all day so as to not get too close to any “danger” “out there.”

Authenticity can often feed a cynical mindset. You may become very sarcastic as well. People don’t like to hear the truth, so you might end up offending people regularly to the point where you become isolated.

So what’s a better way to look at this? Every day that you wake up, you can be thankful for another day on Earth.

You start to realize that life isn’t that bad and that it’s exciting with all of its uncertainty and endless possibilities.

You may start writing in a gratitude journal every day when you wake up. 

Life can seem pretty mundane, and we can get worked up over little things, like someone stealing our parking spot at the grocery store.

When being authentic and realistic about the end of your life, things that used to bother you will go to the wayside. You won’t get so upset about what other people do, and you won’t put unreasonable demands on them.

It doesn’t matter what car you drive, how much money you make, or how popular your job makes you. At the end of the day, you can’t take any of this stuff with you.

The Meaning of Life and Existential Dread

This topic is of paramount importance right now.

We’ve all been affected by this pandemic. It’s made us all think about how we’ve been living our life.

When we saw ourselves hoarding toilet paper, we began to laugh. This type of laughing is not the “funny knock-knock joke” laughing — it’s the existential dread laugh. It’s the “Oh My God” laugh.

We’ve lived in a broken economic and social system for a while (at least in the USA). We work all day making minimum wage just so we can pick the kids up from school, head home for TV dinners, and get ready for bed so that we can do it all over again.

We’ve seen the man behind the curtain. We know that we are busting our butts every day to make rich people richer while we struggle month to month, week to week, and day to day.

There was the promise that if we stayed in school, went to college, got a job based on our education, and had a happy family of 4 or 5, then we’d be happy. We would have made it.

In a way, we all are becoming existentialists now and struggling with existential dread. We’re seeing through it all. There have been lies sold to us ever since we were born so that we’d be good “worker” bees and never question any of it.

We are now questioning it. Just look around. People are going on strike everywhere, and why? 

People are done.

They are just done with it all.

So many businesses had to temporarily close at the beginning of this pandemic. Many of them went out of business for good. People are reacting differently.

I think it’s why we see shorter tempers and an increase in people getting addicted to substances.

None of us are going to lie on our deathbeds and say, “Man I wish I would have worked a few extra shifts at McDonald’s last year.”

We are going to wish we spent more time looking into our romantic partner’s eyes and holding their hand.

We are going to wish we would have slowed down so we didn’t miss spending time with our kids when they were young.

We are going to wish we did more of the things we truly enjoyed doing.

Many of us will wish we had found something to be passionate about but never did.

Once again, this existential crisis and the accompanying existential dread that we’re all suffering from can be turned into something positive. We can realize that the meaning of life is to enjoy it by being in the present moment.

We will see our elderly neighbors struggling to get their groceries in their houses, and we will realize that the meaning of life is to help others!

We can capitalize on this existential crisis so all of us can have a better and more equal quality of life.

Dealing with Existential Dread 

In order to be at peace with the existential scenario we find ourselves in, we need to get comfortable with the uncertainty of life.

When we feel anxiety or depression set in, we may have different coping skills to start feeling better quickly. However, with existential dread, we’re going to have to have a long talk with ourselves.

We need to accept that we can’t accept the uncertainty of life and that it makes us uneasy and extremely uncomfortable.

When you are waiting on the results of a pregnancy test or the boss’s decision about giving you a raise or not, you will get an answer at some point.

However, when dealing with existential dread, we have to come to terms with the fact that perhaps there is no answer.

If we want to cope with our existential dread, then we must accept that life doesn’t necessarily make sense, and it’s not going to be understood on a rational level.

The design of our minds seems to be flawed as we just can’t stand not understanding. So in short, we have to just deal with it.

Helping others and reaffirming your values is a helpful path to set foot on as you emerge from existential dread.

You may not have control over much, but you can decide what’s important to you. Many of us are defined by our job, our relationships, our past, and what others think about us.

Who are we when we are all alone, looking in the mirror?

Living by spiritual principles can be a great help with existential dread. Patience, tolerance, acceptance, faith, hope, courage, and integrity are all positive guiding forces for maneuvering life in a meaningful way.

Treat others with respect and make your life about helping the whole human race. Realize that everyone around you has the same existential questions deep down within them, whether they know it or not.

Helping others is the spiritual food we need to emerge from the darkness into the light. 

Meditation is something that will help you get out of “existential crisis” mode. There are many techniques that can take you into a state of deep relaxation.

It can help you have fewer thoughts — less of the constant chatter that goes on in your mind. In my experience, fewer thoughts equals serenity.

Here’s the Deal About Existential Dread

Dealing with existential dread is not by any means easy. There is no cookie-cutter answer. 

Actually, that’s the thing — there is no answer.

You could meander around your entire life contemplating these questions to the point where they give you extreme anxiety and/or depression.

No one is going to give you the answers to your existential dread conundrum. You have to come up with the answers yourself. Usually, the answer to life is to live it!

March to the beat of your own drum, love intensely, fight like you mean it, and give all you have.

Are you or someone you know struggling with how to deal with existential dread?

We’re all in this together.

I hope that reading has informed you and helped you in some way, and as always, we would love to hear from you! Leave us a message about your struggles with existential dread in the comments.

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9 months ago

This got deep within my soul…your words are like a breath of fresh air. Thank you for pouring your heart and thoughts out on a page for us to read. I could read this over and over again and I probably will. So thought provoking and inspiring. Thank you

Adam Fout
9 months ago
Reply to  Anne-Marie

So glad you enjoyed it! I let Michael know about your kind words. He says thank you, he really appreciates you.

M Koska
M Koska
7 months ago
Reply to  Anne-Marie

Exactly the same for me …every word makes sense of my life

E lone
E lone
8 months ago

You said there are two certainties in life: Change and death. There is a third…we do not die! We are Conscious Creative Energy that came to this place to learn; we chose this experience and its conditions to learn some very important lessons so that we can experience them again without the pain of learning them in another successive experience. Our bodies are the avatars that we use to navigate this experience…these avatars wear out like the cars we drive wear out. When we do or we perform some act that is inappropriate for our Conscious level of understanding to navigate it safely, this journey can be seemingly cut short and the avatar is no longer suitable to make the connection with Universal Consciousness or Divine Consciousness or Source (however you want to label it), the connection that animates the avatar is lost and we call that death. It is the death of the avatar, the body; but is not the death of the Spirit, Soul, Consciousness or whatever you chose to call it. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed to a different form, And that is what happens at the point that we call death, body death. We disconnect from the avatar and go back to Source until we are ready to do it again.

I see existential dread coming from a misunderstanding of who we really are. Science and some religions have a materialistic view of our existence; that consciousness is the result of a bunch of atoms uniting together in just the right order and magnitude and we become various versions of Frankenstein…”It’s Aliiiive! That is not the case, and everyday Science is seeing more and more that Consciousness is eternal and the body is a temporary manifestation of Consciousness, manifested for this experience only.

The answer to existential dread is how you answer this question:
If you knew that you would never die what would you spend the rest of your life doing?


Michael Palma

Michael Palma is a drug addict in recovery who is passionate about recovery and recently has taken to writing about his own experience, strength, and hope and hopes to share this with as many people in recovery as he can. He has been a professional jazz pianist for over 20 years. He has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Cobb (drummer for Miles Davis), Daniel Platzman (drummer for Imagine Dragons), Robert “Sput” Seawright (drummer for Snoop Dogg and Snarky Puppy), Greg Osby, and Terri Lynn Carrington to name a few.

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