Existential anxiety may occur at any point in life. It is very typical for periods of transition. For instance, with the advancement of age, we face a lot of disillusionment, anxiety and regrets, which we have so far suppressed thanks to the belief life is ahead of us and we have time for everything. Later in life we realize that we are running out of it. Whatever it is that we have already achieved is probably the best we are capable of. We only have to harvest the fruits of our work and fulfill our dreams. If we are lucky enough.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t run so smooth for many of us. When we reach old age we are not quite as fulfilled as we thought we would be. The concept of death, which is becoming more tangible, eats up the calmness of our spirit. Death raises all those uncomfortable questions we have so far consciously avoided. What do we really value in life? Have we led a meaningful life? Are we ready to part with it? Such questions are the essence of existential anxiety.
Neurotic anxiety vs. existential anxiety
Fear is one of the six basic human emotions. From a biological perspective, it helps us survive. It prepares the body to fight or flee in case of a threat. When the threat is not real, meaning we don’t have a specific reason to feel afraid, fear stops being functional and becomes neurotic. Neurotic fear is a symptom of many mental disorders – phobias, panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, etc.
There is another type of fear that also leads to worry – the existential fear. It is a natural consequence of our awareness of death. It usually follows a traumatic experience or times when we lose our sense of meaning in life. It can also accompany periods of growth and maturation. So what does it mean to experience existential anxiety?
The existential perspective on anxiety
In short, existential anxiety is a feeling of worry, related to the issues of meaning of life, freedom and free will. Regardless of age, existential anxiety presents itself in times of transitions when we lose a sense of safety and security.
From a philosophical perspective, existentialism claims that we all have free will, which makes us responsible for the choices we make. Facing the inevitability of death, however, our actions lose their meaning. Whatever we choose, we all end in the same way. Therefore, our choices are irrelevant.
The despair resulting from the meaninglessness of life can thus darken all the joy we feel in life. We can’t pinpoint the exact reason we feel so sullen. We behave like teens, who don’t know what they want, but reject everything they get. With the difference that we have lost the passion of searching. And when we know what we want, we don’t dare to look into the abyss between our ourselves and the fulfillment of our desires. That abyss swallows the rest of our enthusiasm and hope.
The existential approach in psychotherapy
Existential psychotherapy is applicable in clinically healthy populations, especially in older adults age group. Very often they do not require cognitive restructuring, or if they do, it can be less effective, given that core beliefs are solidified in decades of experience. Therefore, working through the existential modality in combination with certain elements of acceptance and commitment therapy can yield much better results.