AZ Unlearns: Existential Dread

Right now, the world feels like an increasingly bleak place. Faced with the apparently never ending pileup of societal injustices, crises and cruelties, you may be struggling to find meaning in all that’s going on. If that sense of uncertainty and hopelessness has been weighing you down lately or if you feel suffocated by life’s big, impossible questions then you may be dealing with existential dread but don’t worry, you’re not alone. 

Existential dread refers to the sense of  fear and despair that may arise when we confront the limitations of existence, personally or collectively. The futility of life coupled with the inevitability of death and suffering means that at one point or another,  most of us wonder if there’s purpose in anything. We start to ask ourselves questions like ‘what is the meaning of life?’, ‘what is my value as a person?’ and ‘does anything I do even matter?’.Trying to unpack, predict and qualify our fate as individuals or as a society is a huge undertaking that can lead us to spiral. Usually, these spirals are prompted by a traumatic event. Something like the death of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship, a sudden onset of serious illness or even a job loss can take us to a dark place of obsessing over these unanswerable questions. 

Over the past couple of years, we’ve collectively dealt with layers of trauma, from the COVID-19 pandemic and more recent monkeypox outbreak, to the mounting violence of climate change and the cost of living crisis. Even if those things haven’t directly affected you they can contribute to your sense of existential dread, which can lead to nihilism, depression and/or anxiety. Though existential dread is not a diagnosable psychological condition, it’s links with mental disorders means it’s important for us to recognise when we’re going through it so we can stop it from developing into something more sinister. It can manifest in a lot of ways and be difficult to pinpoint, some key symptoms to look out for are:

  •  Fixation on existential questions (questions around mortality, meaning and free will),
  • Deep sadness caused by the inability to answer these questions
  • Frequent intrusive thoughts about death/ suicide
  • Lack of motivation caused by the belief that everything you do is pointless
  • Analysis paralysis (feeling overwhelmed by all the possible implications of your choices)
  • Relational detachment (feeling lonely or uninterested in relationships because you’re consumed with worry)
  • Boredom and disinterest in everyday routines/ activities you used to enjoy
  • Relentless pessimism about the state of the world.

If you can relate to any of those symptoms it’s important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with you. Existential curiosity is a natural part of the human experience and those of us who exist in the margins of identity, through race, disability, sexuality or neurodivergence, are further predisposed to this kind of thought because the more insignificant an individual is made to feel by society, the more likely they are to consider their significance and the significance of life in general. Research has shown that spontaneous bouts of existential dread may also be more common in people with heightened levels of empathy and intellect so consider yourself gifted if you’re often up at night lamenting on the cruelties of the world. 

The sense of insecurity caused  by existential dread is honestly shit but there is a uniquely liberating process of growth and self-actualisation that can only occur in that space of questioning everything. That process can only begin once you start consciously and holistically working through your sense of unease by doing the following: 

  • Journaling; writing your thoughts and questions down is the best way to get them off your mind. You may not be able to solve anything but your brain will be less compelled to cycle through the same anxious musings once they’re written down on paper somewhere.
  • Talk to friends; sharing your concerns with like minded people will ease stress in the form of reassurance, emotional support and the dopamine release that comes with interaction.
  • Step back from potential triggers; the constant bombardment of bad news from social and traditional media is probably exasperating your existential dread, so take a news detox. Choose blissful ignorance until you’re able to cope a bit better and if you can’t stay away from the TL, curate a media diet with at least as much positive stimuli as negative.
  • Live in the moment; mindfulness practices to help us get out of our heads and into our bodies include yoga, mediation and dance.
  • Commit to a cause; You won’t be able to fix everything but identifying a cause that you can put efforts towards where the impact is tangible (such as helping out at your local food bank) will help with your sense of purpose and optimism.
  • Talk to a professional; if your existential dread is so overwhelming that it interferes with your day to day processes, there is no shame in seeking out therapy or counselling to help you cope. 

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