How to Deal With All Your Existential DreadEver feel like everything is on fire and we’re all gonna die? Same.
In the first grade, my mind was absolutely blown when we studied the solar system. No matter how hard I tried (and I tried hard ), I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that we all live on a ball of rock. For the first time, I felt helpless and vulnerable and like death was imminent—and, like, what the actual FUCK?! Turns out this was my first experience with existential dread, also called existential anxiety.
If you’re here, you’re probably familiar with that what-are-we-even-doing-and-we’re-all-going-to-RIP feeling. Maybe you’re still struggling to comprehend death and the expansiveness of the world like first-grade me. Or maybe you’re having a difficult time finding motivation to do life amidst nonstop news alerts about war, the environment on high alert, and attacks on people’s bodily autonomy.
In those instances, you can experience a sense of hopelessness and/or anxiety about the fact that nothing is certain and death is inevitable, says clinical psychologist and certified grief professional Cynthia Shaw, PsyD. That’s pretty common when you’re confronted with the limitations of being human and realize you only have so much control over your life, she says.
You might start spiraling about your existence after witnessing something traumatic, like a natural disaster or pandemic, says psychologist Carl Weems, PhD, who studies existential anxiety as Iowa State University’s department chair and professor of human development and family studies. But this experience can also happen in people who have, for example, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or adjustment disorder, says Dr. Shaw, or for no apparent reason at all.
And that’s definitely a bummer since existential dread can leave you fatigued, depressed, or just super apathetic, says Dr. Shaw. Even though those feelings are normal and valid, learning to manage existential dread when it pops up can improve your outlook on life and make you feel a little less hopeless. Here’s how to do that.
1. Take a break.
When your mind races amid an existential dread spiral, it can feel like the heaviness of the world is crashing on you. But doing something to distract yourself from those intense thoughts can get you out of anxiety mode, says Dr. Weems.
Obviously, this isn’t a long-term solution, says Dr. Weems. Eventually, you’ll need to deal with what’s bothering you or you’ll never learn to cope with it or move past it. But, when existential dread pops up at an inconvenient time, try to occupy yourself with something completely unrelated to whatever triggered it. If it was reading your news alerts, spend some time away from your phone by going on a walk, reading a fantasy novel, or laughing your ass off to Ted Lasso. If it was a conversation that got dark, change the subject to something uplifting, like your weekend plans or a trip you’ve got in the works.
2. Do what gives you purpose.
Spiraling over thoughts like, What am I doing with my life? (been there) and, I have no control over literally anything! (ditto) can leave you feeling like any decision you make is pointless. But reflecting on your values and using those to guide what you do—or don’t do—can give you a stronger sense of purpose and help you feel better about your life's direction, says Dr. Shaw.
And, as a bonus, doing the things that fill you up makes life more enjoyable so you’re less likely to stress about the inevitable end of it, says Dr. Weems. Morbid but true! “You don't have to save the world. You can really experience great fulfillment and purpose even from the smallest of experiences, such as lending a helping hand to a stranger,” Dr. Shaw notes.
So pinpoint the things that mean the most to you and act on them. If it’s the environment, rally your neighbors to step up their recycling game. If it’s time and space to be creative, maybe pick up a fiction writing class online. Whatever your values, the goal is to do more that aligns with them in whatever way makes sense for you.
3. Focus on the here and now.
Existential anxiety can ramp up your heart rate, mess with your breathing, make you sweat, and spin your thoughts out of control, says Dr. Shaw. But grounding practices that aim to get you back in the moment can calm an overactive nervous system, she explains.
You can try things like focusing on the lyrics of your favorite song, giving your body some love with yoga, or taking a hike in nature. You can even just sit down and zone in on whatever body parts are making contact with the chair or ground beneath you, says Dr. Shaw. Anything that’ll get you into a state of ~mindfulness~ is a solid option.
While it’s great to ground yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed by existential dread, taking time to ground yourself on a daily basis can make it easier for you to get really present if and when your distress peaks later, Dr. Shaw says.
4. Work on your relationships.
Whether they’re romantic or platonic, relationships in which you care and share mutual respect can give you a sense of belonging, says Dr. Shaw. That’s because feeling seen and heard by your people makes the existential-ness of *waves arms around* less intense. And if you don’t have those genuine connections, feeling lonely in this effed up world can add to or trigger existential dread, Dr. Shaw says. Oof.
Homework for you: Rebuild old connections that felt like the real deal or seek out new ones. Maybe call your mom to catch up more regularly or join that book club your work bud keeps bugging you about. Yeah, it can be hard to make friends, especially as an adult, but there are plenty of ways to try. The key? Vulnerability, trust, and a little bravery, Dr. Shaw says.
If you feel lonely even when you’re around certain people because they don’t have your back or don’t get you, set boundaries with them, says Dr. Shaw. You don’t need to cut them off completely (unless you want to), but meeting up less often will free up more space for the relationships that make you feel good.
5. Talk about your dread.
When I feel particularly brain-scrambled by life’s limitations and inevitables, spilling my worries to someone I trust feels really nice. Speaking or texting these thoughts out into the world separates me from my dread—which makes me feel like I have more control. It also helps me see that I’m spiraling and...should probably stop.
It’s also possible whoever you’re talking to has experienced similar dread, says Dr. Shaw. And relating on that level can normalize what you’re going through. At the very least, they’ll just be there to listen and support you as you vent.
So, text a friend or call up whomever. Lay out that you’re struggling without shaming yourself, says Dr. Shaw. (Nope, you’re not “literally the worst” or “so annoying.”) Then, ask if they have the time or energy to talk about your existential dread just in case today’s not the day to dive into the meaning of life with them. If they’re all in, you can set the stage by clarifying whether you want advice or just need someone to listen, Dr. Shaw notes.
6. Challenge your thought spirals.
Existential dread can make you worry about and fear your own death. When this happens to me, it feels awful and hard to escape the feeling that bad things are bound to happen at any second. But taking a step back to think about the probability of those scenarios can help you see that they’re not that likely to happen, says Dr. Weems.
Let’s say, “Oh, my god, the world is going to end one day,” hits you in the shower. Fight back by telling yourself something like, “Yep, someday but probably not today,” Dr. Weems suggests. Then, follow that up by doing something you enjoy that day, like going for a walk, he adds.
7. Write out your feelings.
For me, writing poetry about my existential dread is cathartic because it puts what’s often tangled in my mind into words—and seeing it laid out in a pretty way is less jarring than my WTF thoughts. But, honestly, any kind of freewriting can help slow your thoughts down, ease your nervous system, and let you reflect on what you’re feeling, says Dr. Shaw.
Journaling or freewriting can also help you sort out where your existential dread is coming from and how it affects you, which can give you a sense of direction, says Dr. Shaw. “The process allows us to get more in tune with ourselves, explore our possible options and paths, and experiment with making life choices that are in line with how we'd like to live,” she explains.
Here are some journal prompts to help you express what you’re feeling, start digging into your dread, and figure out how to live through all this shit:
- What does existential dread feel like in my body?
- What am I truly scared of?
- If I knew that I only had a few years left to live, what would I want to do with that time?
- What is my five-year plan?
- What in my life is not serving me at all? What might I want to change?
- What do I love to do? How can I do more of those things?
- If I lived this life again, would I do anything differently?
8. Look into some professional help.
Of course, if you feel like existential dread is making your life hell, a mental health pro can help you assess your values; find meaning in the world; and work through trauma, grief, or any tough headspace, says Dr. Shaw. A therapist can also help you decide if the anxiety or depression you feel because of your existential dread is something that calls for medication, Dr. Weems says. (FYI, if a psychiatrist thinks that what you’re dealing with fits the bill for clinical depression or an anxiety disorder—or they notice what you’re going through is messing with your ability to do life—they may prescribe antidepressant or anti-anxiety meds.)
While any kind of talk therapy enables you to unpack your existential dread, existential therapy can help you better understand yourself and make decisions that are true to you and how you want to live, says Dr. Shaw. And working with a mental health pro who specializes in mindfulness-based practices can help you learn strategies to keep your nervous system calm, she says. No matter the modality, finding a therapist or type of therapy that feels accessible is the goal.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.