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The Existential Roots of Anxiety

Life itself is reason enough to feel uneasy.

Key points

  • Insights from philosophy can help us understand the sources of anxiety.
  • Anxiety is no surprise when we consider the nature of our lives and of the world we're thrown into.
  • Recognizing the persistence of anxiety can help you to make peace with it.
Jacob Lund / Adobe Stock
Source: Jacob Lund / Adobe Stock

When you're experiencing anxiety, it's natural to look for the cause. Sometimes you'll be able to point to a specific situation that's making you anxious: an upcoming trip, a medical issue, a struggling family member.

But much of the time there is no identifiable reason for feeling anxious. As best you can tell, all is well—and yet it doesn't feel that way. You might have a vague feeling of dread or a free-floating sense of foreboding. Perhaps your body is humming with an anxious energy that seems unprovoked.

What might account for anxiety with no clear cause? Many of the explanations have to do with the nature of life itself.

1. The Mystery of Existence Is Terrifying

No one can explain where life and the universe came from or even fundamentally what they are. This mystery can strike us with "wonder and awe," says philosopher Samir Chopra, author of the recent book Anxiety: A Philosophical Guide. But "there is an element of fear and terror" as well, he says. Life itself is "infected with a kind of strangeness that is beautiful and terrifying at the same time."

Accordingly, we feel anxious not only about specific unknowns in our immediate future, but also about deeper questions regarding how we got here and what our fate will be.

2. Meaning Is Imposed

Part of what makes the ultimate mystery manageable is the structure we impose on life—what Chopra calls a "veil of meaning" based on naming and classifying objects and experiences: my house, your wife, this generation. But on some level, we recognize that these imposed labels and categories are arbitrary.

"When you start stripping away those titles of conferred meaning," says Chopra, "slowly you come face to face with naked being, and the strangeness of it all hits you." It can be deeply disorienting to recognize that the orderliness we imagine doesn't exist "out there," but only in the mental overlay we bring to our experience. A part of us is continually aware that life is more chaotic and unruly than we like to think.

3. Nothing Lasts

Life is not only mysterious but is constantly in flux, with no way to predict what will happen or hold on to the things we like. "Any good experience I'm having in this world is going to run out at some point," Chopra says. "There's a sense of fragility in all that I can see around me"—a feeling that "is there at some level even if I distract myself from it."

The impermanence of everything creates "an annoying sense that something is not quite right," according to Chopra. As a result, we are continually "unhappy, grasping, and trying desperately to make things persist." And while we're aware of a future that will almost surely include pain and loss, we are powerless to predict exactly what is coming or to prevent what we fear.

Chopra contends that anxiety is not just likely given this setup, but inevitable. "Being curious about the future but lacking in knowledge and power is the constitutive structure of an anxious being," he says. "Such a creature is anxious and will be anxious."

4. Reality Isn't Fair

Most of us have certain rules about what life owes us, such as a minimum number of healthy years. But at some point, we learn that reality isn't fair. It doesn't abide by the guidelines we set. It doesn't know that you should be immune from pain.

The universe also doesn't dole out suffering equitably or relent just because we've reached some imagined quota—a lesson Chopra learned after losing his father at age 12 and then his mother at age 26. When his mom died he realized that "things could keep piling up in the misfortune column and it was entirely compatible with the way this universe works."

"This is a world not made for us, to cater to our desires," as he writes in his book. "It is not bound by the demands we place upon it." Stripping away the illusion of a just universe leaves us feeling vulnerable and exposed—which we are.

5. Our Actions Have Uncertain Outcomes

Exhortations like Mary Oliver's to make the most of "your one wild and precious life" can be inspiring, and they can also underscore the tremendous pressure we feel to live our best life. Unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines for what that looks like, which leads to "a nagging sense that we're not using our time correctly," says Chopra.

How will we know that we've "lived life well enough on some imagined scale of assessment"? While we have the responsibility to create lives of meaning, we never know for certain if the way we're living is measuring up on that scale. "So often we think that our lives are falling short of some ideals," Chopra says, which leads to a feeling of "unease that I'm doing something wrong with the way I happen to be spending my time right now."

6. We Will Die

Beneath all of these fears is the awareness that our lives will end. "That fear of nothingness is a kind of central anxiety," says Chopra. It is reflected in our awareness that life is uncertain, that nothing lasts, and that the universe doesn't play by our rules.

Just as we weren't responsible for our unlikely appearance in this world that we didn't design, the time and nature of our departure are unknown and out of our control.

Making Peace With Anxiety

While these drivers of anxiety could lead to despair, they can also help you to be less distressed by the anxiety you experience. Anxiety is challenging because we hold the implicit belief that a good life consists of minimizing discomfort and maximizing bliss. Chopra contends that this assumption is problematic in part because "we are constantly measuring ourselves against how well we have achieved the lack of discomfort."

We all know that we can't escape discomfort, so we tend to feel that we're falling short in some way when life is hard or we feel anxious. But "maybe the absence of discomfort is not the highest good that life has to offer," says Chopra. What if instead the point of living was to experience all of life—the pleasant and the not so pleasant?

"If the purpose of life is to also experience unhappiness and to learn from it, then in some sense when we are experiencing discomfort or dissatisfaction or suffering, we're not having a bad life or a wrong life" or using our time in the wrong way, according to Chopra.

He says the first step is to accept that the discomfort of anxiety will be a part of life—"an ever-present quantity. Viewed in that fashion, anxiety becomes something that we are partway toward living with." Perhaps anxiety is not an obstacle to living well, but instead an integral part of every well-lived life.


Chopra, S. (2024). Anxiety: A philosophical guide. Princeton University Press.

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