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Alcohol and Mental Health

Existential Anxiety: What It Is and How To Cope

November 20, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
November 20, 2023
19 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
November 20, 2023
19 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
November 20, 2023
19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
November 20, 2023
19 min read

You’ve just gone through a major life change. You didn’t really see it coming, and you’re flooded with intense emotions as you try to process it. You suddenly find yourself questioning your very existence, and you’re anxious thinking about your future and purpose. What’s going on?

In this post, we’ll gain insight into existential anxiety — what it is, what causes it, and how we can cope with it in a healthy, effective way. What is a good existential anxiety definition? And where do existential fears come from? Let’s dive in!

What Is Existential Anxiety?

How can we define existential dread, orexistential anxiety? Simply put, existentialanxiety is a type of anxiety that arisesfrom thinking about yourself, your life, oryour existence. It can cause intensediscomfort, distress, and unease, as wellas all-encompassing doubts about your purpose and future.

One hallmark of existential anxiety is examining the meaning of a general worry or thought, which can turn into angst about the meaning of life itself. It’s not uncommon for people struggling with existential anxiety to become consumed by questions such as “Why am I here?” “How did I come to be?” and “What is my purpose in life?”

According to experts, there are four main concepts at the root of existential anxiety:

  1. The inevitability of death
  2. Meaninglessness
  3. Isolation
  4. Freedom and responsibility 

Although existential thoughts that cause anxiety are a normal part of the human experience, in extreme cases it can cause prolonged distress and negatively affect our health and well-being. However, when properly addressed, it can be a catalyst for growth and change.

How Is Existential Anxiety Different From Other Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural human response to stress. It’s a general feeling of unease, worry, or fear about the future. While most people will experience anxiety at some point in their life, some people develop an anxiety disorder due to consistent, heightened levels of anxiety.

Anxiety can also manifest itself in different ways. For instance, some people experience social anxiety, separation anxiety, or specific phobias of objects or situations.

In contrast, existential anxiety is more abstract and less tied to a specific event or situation. Instead, it’s a feeling of deep unease or dread about our entire human existence.

Existential Dread vs. Crisis

Another distinction we should make is one between existential anxiety and an existential crisis. While the first is ongoing and somewhat less intense, the second feels more like a psychological emergency. An existential crisis is often brought on by a sudden  tragic event, whether large-scale (such as a war) or personal (such as a loss of a loved one). Regardless, it causes a profound disruption in our lives and becomes the main focus rather than a constant background presence.

What Are the Symptoms of Existential Anxiety?

The signs and symptoms of existential thoughts that lead to anxiety aren’t always apparent to others. In fact, it’s not unusual for someone experiencing existential anxiety to appear calm and collected on the outside. On the inside, however, their mind may be in turmoil and they may be experiencing extreme distress.

While people experience existential anxiety in different ways, these are some of the most common signs:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Feeling that life is a struggle
  • Having painful emotions, such as despair or regret
  • Withdrawing from social activities or loved ones
  • Questioning long-held beliefs, including (but not limited to) religious faith
  • Experiencing panic attacks 

Generally speaking, symptoms of existential anxiety are similar to general anxiety, but with an increased sense of worry about life, the future, and purpose. Existential anxiety can also manifest physically with increased heart rate, tightness in chest, nausea, shaking or dizziness.

While there’s no specific test to diagnose existential anxiety, a doctor or therapist will usually make a diagnosis based on a person’s symptoms, thoughts, and feelings. It’s worth noting that existential anxiety can also be linked to low mood, interpersonal issues, and feelings of hopelessness.

What Causes Existential Anxiety?

Existential anxiety can emerge from a variety of sources. For instance, major life events or changes can trigger a person to rethink their values, beliefs, and goals, causing them to worry about their future.

Experts believe 5 main things can trigger existential anxiety:

  1. The death of a loved one. Losing a loved one can be a difficult, painful experience, no matter how much time we have to prepare. The grieving process often entails evaluating our own place in the universe. This can trigger existential anxiety as we consider what we want our own legacy to be.
  2. Big life changes. We might experience existential anxiety during big life changes, such as weddings, babies, new houses, or moving to a new area. These disrupt our established patterns and routines, and they can cause us to reevaluate our values and priorities.
  3. Aging. Aging can trigger existential anxiety since it causes us to reflect on our past and wonder about our future. If our lives haven’t gone as planned, or if we feel we haven’t lived up to our potential, we might be overcome with despair, regret, or a feeling of hopelessness.
  4. Losing a job or feeling stuck in a career. Losing a job or feeling stuck in a career you don’t like can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. We might have to confront underlying questions about our direction, goal, accomplishments and desires.
  5. World events. Things like terrorism, pandemics (such as COVID), climate change, and catastrophes can create existential anxiety, even if we’re not directly affected. They remind us of life’s fragility and how little control we actually have.

This list is by no means exhaustive! While these are some of the more common triggers for existential anxiety, people may still experience it in different contexts and settings.

5 Main Things Can Trigger Existential Anxiety

What Are the Health Risks of Existential Anxiety?

It’s important to understand existential anxiety because, left unchecked, it can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health. If we ignore it, suppress it, or avoid it, existential anxiety can disrupt our quality of life and negatively affect our well-being.

These are some of the health risks associated with existential anxiety:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Relationship problems
  • Insecurity
  • Sense of pointlessness and lack of motivation
  • Hopelessness
  • Discouragement with life
  • Emptiness
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Lack of positive contributions to society 

In extreme cases, existential anxiety can lead to suicide. This is why it’s so important to recognize the signs and symptoms — and to reach out for help when we need to.

The Upside of Existential Anxiety

So what about the benefits of existential anxiety — are there any? Yes! Existential anxiety isn’t all negative — as long as we manage it properly (more to come on that, below). Even though it’s distressing and uncomfortable, it can actually create positive outcomes. In fact, it can help us develop perspective, a sense of direction, and come to terms with our mortality so we can live a fulfilling life.

Experts suggest that existential anxiety can also relieve boredom and motivate us to grow and change. Sometimes, a bit of tension helps move us forward. Furthermore, confronting our existential anxiety can bring us greater self-awareness, self-actualization, and a sense of purpose.

8 Tips for Coping With Existential Anxiety

As we’ve noted, it’s vital to cope with existential anxiety so it doesn’t wreak havoc on our well-being. While we can’t expect our angst to disappear entirely, we can develop tools to help us manage it in a healthy, productive way. Here are 8 tips:

  1. Accept the uncertainty. A lot of existential anxiety comes from feeling a sense of uncertainty — about your life, your future, or yourself. Sometimes we try to resist this uncertainty, but that only makes it worse. Instead, try embracing it and loosening the need for control. There’s a great sense of freedom that comes from “surrendering” to the unknown.
  2. Reflect on your anxiety. Try to get to the root of your anxiety. You can do this by paying attention to your anxious thoughts and feelings and looking for any patterns. For instance, track the times when you’re feeling overly anxious and times when you feel a bit more at peace. What are you doing, and how can you create more experiences that you enjoy?
  3. Break things down. One problem with existential anxiety is that it can make us feel overwhelmed by everything all at the same time. We can’t expect to tackle our issues all at once, so try breaking them up into smaller chunks. For instance, choose one aspect of your life that is bothering you and then identify small action steps to help you move forward.
  4. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can help us combat existential anxiety by keeping us focused on the present moment rather than ruminating over problems or worries. We can practice mindfulness by bringing attention to our bodily sensations and feelings, and accepting them without judgment. Even just focusing on your breath can help ground you in the here and now.
  5. Keep a gratitude journal. There’s something about writing down the things we’re thankful for that has a peaceful and calming effect. It also trains our mind to look for all the good in our life, which boosts our mood and outlook. They don’t have to be big, giant things — consider the small things, like a beautiful flower or a hot cup of coffee.
  6. Identify your strengths. Take some time to consider your strengths. We all have unique qualities that make us who we are, and tapping into them can lead to a sense of fulfillment in life. If you don’t know your strengths, try taking a strengths survey or personality test to learn more about yourself.
  7. Try new activities. Sometimes the best thing we can do to get out of a funk or overcome anxious feelings is to try something new. Consider exploring new hobbies or activities, which can help us discover a new passion or find a new sense of purpose. This might include taking a cooking class, joining a volunteer organization, or signing up for a new exercise class.
  8. Talk to a therapist. If your symptoms are getting worse and you just can’t seem to get a grip, seek the help of a professional. A therapist or counselor can help us explore our anxiety in a safe environment, and offer strategies to help us manage it effectively. Remember: existential anxiety is a universal human experience, and there’s nothing wrong with getting help  — we aren’t meant to struggle alone!

The only way to decrease existential anxiety is to confront it, explore it, and accept it as part of the human experience. As the famous psychologist Carl Yung once said, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”

The Bottom Line

Existential anxiety can be very uncomfortable, causing us to question ourselves, our future, and our purpose. But it can also help usher us into a more fulfilling life if we learn to accept it and manage it properly. If we’re trying to numb our anxiety or feelings with alcohol, our existential anxiety will likely worsen. Instead, we can benefit from confronting it head on and seeking outside help if necessary.

If you’re turning to alcohol to ease your anxiety, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits.

Summary FAQs

1. Why is motivation important in the alcohol-reduction journey?

Motivation acts as the driving force, propelling individuals to make healthier choices and sustain positive changes related to alcohol consumption over time.

2. Can I regain motivation if I experience setbacks in my journey?

Absolutely. Setbacks are a natural part of any journey. The key is to learn from them, reset your goals, and seek support when needed to reignite your motivation.

3. How can I stay motivated when social situations involve alcohol?

It's essential to have a clear understanding of your “why” — the reasons for your journey. Also, seeking out alcohol-free alternatives and surrounding yourself with supportive peers can bolster your motivation in social scenarios.

4. How does understanding the science behind alcohol impact motivation?

Awareness of the physiological and psychological effects of alcohol can act as a reality check, reinforcing reasons to reduce or quit and thereby bolstering motivation.

5. Can joining support groups help in staying motivated?

Definitely. Support groups provide a platform to share experiences, learn from others, and gain encouragement, all of which can significantly boost motivation.

6. Does alcohol really impact learning?

Yes, chronic alcohol consumption can impede our brain's capability to form new neural pathways and diminish cognitive functions. Reducing alcohol intake provides an optimal environment for the brain to learn and grow.

7. How can I replace the social aspect of drinking with other engaging activities?

Mindful meet-ups, community groups, and skill-swap sessions are excellent ways to socially engage without alcohol. These activities emphasize quality interactions and provide opportunities to connect deeply with others.

Enhance Your Well-being With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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