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Introduction to Existential Anxiety

Psychologists and doctors are often exploring the idea of potential causes of anxiety that may not be easily explained by previous research. In the 1800's, a philosopher by the name of Sren Kierkegaard came up with the theory of existentialism: the idea that human behavior is governed by individual beliefs to life's biggest questions and the freedoms that people enjoy.

Also known as existential angst, existential anxiety is the theory that anxiety itself (along with other negative emotions) stems from stress over those freedoms and the unknown.

Behavioral Principles Still Cure Existential Anxiety

Those that believe in existential anxiety can still be cured with the right relaxation and behavioral tactics. Learn what your symptoms say about the ideal treatment for your anxiety.

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How Existential Anxiety Works

Existentialists do not necessarily believe that existential anxiety is any different from traditional anxiety disorders regarding how they respond and how they're treated. That's why it's still important to take my anxiety test now and learn what you can do to stop your anxiety.

In fact, existential anxiety isn't believed to be a problem at all. While there are still debates on a formal definition, the idea is that anxiety is a natural and healthy phenomenon due to asking yourself the following types of questions:

  • Why am I here?
  • What is my purpose in life?
  • Who am I supposed to be?

These types of questions are believed to cause a healthy amount of anxiety, or "angst," that a person lives with as they try to answer those questions for themselves. Originally existential anxiety referred to a relationship with God and how to live in a way that God would want, but since then it has evolved to be more inclusive of the more substantial life questions.

Because there is no answer to these questions, philosophers believe the human mind experiences a type of stress from wondering how to act towards something so unknown. This creates a present anxiety that can be exacerbated by other confusions and life questions.

Problem vs. Healthy Anxiety

Existential anxiety is not believed to be a mental health problem, and as a result, there is no formal treatment. Some people even argue that existential anxiety is only something that occurs while people decide to contemplate life's meaning, and isn't present when those questions aren't considered.

Existential psychology believes that if anxiety has become a problem, then it is simply an anxiety disorder and would likely respond to the same types of cognitive behavioral and talk therapy treatments that others use. Some psychologists employ specific existential therapy methods as well, integrating the idea of coming to terms with one's existence into treatment.

Most existential therapists are not concerned with the past, and only moderately concerned with the present. They tend to focus more on accepting the future, and planning to live life in a way that embraces the effects of existence.

Using Existential Psychology to Cure Anxiety

Because existential angst is more of a philosophical theory than a psychological belief, it's difficult to know the degree to which existentialism plays a role in anxiety or any mental health issue in life. But existentialism is somewhat inherently present in many current anxiety treatments.

The key is to make sure that you're not just focusing on the past, but learning to take personal responsibility for your own future. Since you have the choice in how you want to enjoy your existence, this realization is in many ways a part of most types of psychological therapy and recovery already.

I've worked with those that appear to suffer from existential anxiety in the past. I strongly recommend you take my free 7-minute anxiety test now, to get a better idea of what your anxiety is and what it takes to treat it.

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Wierzbicka, Anna. Angst. Culture & Psychology 4.2 (1998): 161-188.

Schneider, Kirk J., and Rollo May. The psychology of existence: An integrative, clinical perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Greenberg, Jeff, Sander L. Koole, and Tom Pyszczynski, eds. Handbook of experimental existential psychology. The Guilford Press, 2004.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Nov 30, 2017.

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