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Existential Anxiety and 4 Ways to Cope

Strategies for coping with overwhelming dread about the state of the world.

Key points

  • It is natural to feel anxiety about the state of the world today.
  • Existential anxiety poses difficult-to-answer questions about the future of the Earth and humanity.
  • Normal strategies for challenging anxious thoughts might not be effective for existential anxiety.

I watched the news this morning, in an attempt to be a responsible, well-informed citizen. You probably know how this goes. The news was overwhelmingly very bad. The plague is surging. The terrorists are rising. The planet is dying. Everything is on fire.

I sat frozen on my couch, a forgotten mug of coffee cooling in my hand. I had the urge to put my face in a throw pillow and let out a primal scream. That’s when it occurred to me that this might be a nice time to discuss existential anxiety.

What Is Existential Anxiety?

Existential anxiety is just like regular anxiety, but inflated to the level of all existence. It’s like your anxiety went to school and got a philosophy degree. Your regular anxiety asks: what if we were driving and the wheels fell off the car? To which you can easily reply: we’re safe because wheels don’t just fall off cars.

But your existential anxiety asks questions that are more difficult to answer. Your existential anxiety has some pressing questions for you about the state of the world. What happens to me when the sea level rises? What if the pandemic goes on forever? What exactly does a Code Red for Humanity mean?

You’ve got to admit, your existential anxiety's questions are rather legitimate. It’s just that you don’t have any answers. You’re probably not a climate scientist or an epidemiologist or a geopolitical expert. Even if you’re one of those things, you’re definitely not all three. So how can you put your mind at ease when the anxieties are so large and so unanswerable?

Our Body’s Response to Anxiety

It is extremely valid and correct to feel anxiety in response to terrifying world events. When our brain perceives a threat, our body takes over. Our hindbrain is activated, and we go into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Unfortunately, a threatening story on the television is enough to activate this response, even when there is no immediate threat in the room with you.

When you’re anxious about the state of the world, you might find yourself with a pounding heart or tight muscles. That’s because your body is preparing you to defend yourself from a physical threat. Your brain is great at perceiving threats, but not very good at differentiating between the physical and the existential.

Obviously, you can’t use your hyperarousal to fight off the growing threat of terrorist extremism from your living room. So your anxious energy has nowhere to go, and simmers in your body. This often leads to a mild dissociative response. We shut down and feel nothing in response to feeling way too much.

How to Cope

Reduce Your Media Intake

Two hundred years ago, we didn’t have instantaneous global communication. People only had to worry about the disasters happening in their immediate vicinity. Now, we have phones and the internet, and are privy to every single bad event happening simultaneously in every corner of the world. It’s good to be informed, but I’m not sure our brains are wired to handle a constant inundation of bad news.

Consider getting mindful about the way you consume media. Instead of having a perpetually updated newsfeed on your phone, disable that app and check the news once per day. Consume the form of media that you find the least anxiety-provoking. Consider taking a temporary break from social media apps. Or, if you want to continue activism on social media, try putting time limits on your screen time. You can still stay involved and well-informed without reading and sharing every single update every day.

Let Out Your Anxious Energy

Your body, when in a state of panic, doesn’t want to sit quietly and retweet articles. It wants to use the cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream to run, fight, or find an excellent hiding place. So let it! Get some of your anxious energy out by exercising, taking a walk, or cleaning your home.

If you tend more towards freezing and dissociating, try to focus on making yourself feel physically safe and comfortable. Wrap up in a blanket and put on your favorite comfort movie. Focus on sensations like the temperature of the room or the pressure of the blankets to get you out of your head and into your body. Weighted blankets, cool packs, heating pads, and essential oils are all great sensory strategies to keep on hand.

Examine History for Comfort

If you’re a student of history, then you know that disaster is nothing new. In every time period, ancient and modern, humans have worried that the world is going to hell in a handbag. Plague, natural disaster, warfare, political upheaval—pick any point in human history and there they are.

Sometimes it helps to remind yourself that what you are experiencing isn’t necessarily new. Humans have survived millennia of unmaking and remaking the world. They were all as confused and frightened as we are now. Eventually, they all found a way to make it work. If they had the skills to survive their disasters, you have the skills to make it through yours.

Look for the Bright Spots in Humanity

In my office, I have what I call a Comfort Folder. When I feel discouraged about my work, I get out the folder and read through its contents. It contains a collection of heartwarming letters, stories, or artwork I have received from people I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years. It gives me strength to remind myself that my life and my work are full of bright spots—even if I’ve had difficulty spotting them.

Consider creating your own comfort folder—maybe on your computer or phone. Collect kind texts from loved ones, or stories of help, hope, and resilience from the news. Write down moments where you witnessed the power of human kindness. Save the folder to read when you feel need a heavy dose of hope.

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