What to Know About Existential Dread

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 06, 2022
4 min read

If you've ever thought about the meaning of life, you have something in common with the great historical philosophers. Perhaps you have concluded that humans must make their lives meaningful. If so, you agree with the existentialist philosophers. Being responsible for your own life, though, can be scary. It may make you anxious or worried. Some people label these feelings existential dread.

Existentialism is not an organized movement. It has roots in ancient philosophy but came into its own around the time of the two world wars. Thinkers tried to make sense of the horrors of war. It's no wonder that the answers they came up with weren't easy or comfortable. 

Existentialism holds that life is initially meaningless. Individuals must create their own meaning. They do this by leading an authentic life, a life that is true to their own beliefs and values. 

A philosophy that regards life as meaningless may seem incompatible with religious beliefs. Still, while some important existentialists were atheists, others were deeply religious. Many people who struggle with the big questions of existentialism are able to resolve them with their religious beliefs. 

If you feel despair and uncertainty when you think about your life, you are experiencing what some call existential dread.  

Symptoms of existential dread include:

  • Anxiety. You may worry about the future or have anxiety that isn't tied to a particular concern.
  • Depression. You may feel guilty about the past or hopeless about the future.
  • Loneliness or isolation. You may feel that no one understands you or really cares about you.
  • Lack of motivation or energy. Due to feeling that nothing has meaning, you may pass on activities you once enjoyed.
  • Obsessive thoughts. You may ask yourself the same questions over and over without arriving at any answers.

If you question the meaning of life without finding good answers, you may be in an existential crisis. An existential crisis is not a mental health condition, but you may need to seek treatment if you feel especially anxious or depressed as a result of your crisis. If you experience suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately.

Specific events can trigger an existential crisis, especially events in these two categories:

Events that change your life. Major life events can lead you to rethink your beliefs and values. Even positive events can have an impact. You may experience a crisis after:

Events that threaten your life. If you have had a serious illness, you may question your approach to life. Sometimes, going through the illness of a loved one has the same effect. Accidents and injuries can also be impactful, as can living through a natural disaster or a great societal change.

Some experts classify existential crises according to the life stages when they occur. 

Sophomore Crisis. This crisis occurs during the late teens or early 20s. It may involve career paths or personal relationships. High-achieving people may be more likely to have a sophomore crisis.  

Adult existential crisis. This crisis usually occurs with people with well-established careers. It can involve complex issues. You may question your religious beliefs or lack of such beliefs. You may have doubts about your sexual identity or how you express your sexuality. 

Later existential crisis. As you enter your later years, you may wonder what legacy you will leave behind. You may question whether you achieved anything really worthwhile. Illness or approaching death may trigger a late existential crisis, but the existential crisis is not truly about those events. Instead, it is about evaluating your life as a whole.  

These examples show how life events and life stages can trigger feelings of existential dread:

  • An older person who is no longer needed by family members may lose motivation and no longer feel inner joy.
  • A person diagnosed with cancer may fear death and feel anxiety about undergoing treatment.
  • A person who has made mistakes in the past may feel guilt and the pain of knowing that the past can't be altered. 
  • A person fighting substance abuse may feel isolated from others.  

Some people can work through an existential crisis on their own. Sometimes, you will adjust to the changes that have occurred in your life. Sometimes, you make changes that bring your life more in line with your values. 

Others need help to get through a crisis. If you continue to have anxiety, depression, and other symptoms, you may need counseling or psychiatric help. There is no one best type of therapy for an existential crisis, but a variety of counseling approaches may work. 

You can do many things on your own to ease existential dread, though finding the ones that help can take some time. Try these strategies and stick with the ones that work:

  • Understand that an existential crisis can be a chance for growth.
  • Reach out to others and strengthen your social connections.
  • Write in a journal. A gratitude journal may be especially helpful.
  • Be sure that you have a work-life balance and that you make time for hobbies, too.
  • Don't relive old mistakes.
  • Practice mindfulness by fully experiencing the present.

Most people are able to manage their feelings of existential dread. Sometimes, the feelings may even go away completely. Many times, however, they return, especially during life changes. 

If your feelings persist, you could have an underlying condition that complicates your situation. Bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are two conditions that could make it harder to get over an existential crisis.