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Existential dread: the best tips for dealing with it

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Nov 12, 2020

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What’s the point in anything, right? Actually, wrong. And I’m going to prove it to you, because right now, you exist—and that’s enough of a reason. What does it mean to have an existential crisis, and how can we find lucidity again once we find ourselves going through one?

What is an existential crisis?

An existential crisis (or existential anxiety) refers to feelings of unease around the meaning of life, the choices that are woven within it and the overwhelming scale of what surrounds it. When one is in an existential crisis, the idea of life being inherently pointless to live clouds judgement and reason. Because, the person within an existential crisis finds their existence on Earth meaningless. This mental state tends to arise during drastic transitional phases, when we find it difficult to adapt to certain situations, and often when we lose safety or security.

A variety of symptoms may be experienced—not only anxiety, but also depression, overwhelming stress, the feeling of being isolated from friends or loved ones, a lack of motivation or obsessive worrying. No symptom is to be taken lightly, but change is on the other side of the mirror for us all. So if you are reading this and suffering, take a very deep breath, release it, feel the weight of your body. Read on.

Existential dread

Does it feel like you are trapped in an infinite nightmare? Do you feel insignificant on the scale of the ever expanding cosmos? Does your life on Earth contradict itself in being all-consuming yet meaningless too? It’s terrifying, almost paralysingly so. But these questions, and the answers to them in your head, aren’t moulded by anyone else but you, and as concrete as they seem—it takes a few subtle mental shifts to shatter that mould of thought entirely.

A form of existential dread which is officially called Acute Existential Dread (AED) is an intense feeling of inconsequentiality of self. It is triggered by external stimulations, such as the questions asked above for example, which I will expand on as much as I am able to now. It is important to mention that not all existential dread is acute. Chronic Existential Dread (CED) is a condition that more people struggle with, which is a repeated exposure to monotonous stretches of meaningless tedium. Like a job that does not fulfil you, or no job to get up for (thank you 2020), among other individual reasons.

It is not uncommon for someone with CED to beat themselves up about their own complaints, sometimes small ones, like, the waiter forgot to bring more sugar to the table when they had specifically asked them to. There is a wave of upset, annoyance, then realisation that there are people with no sugar at all, then guilt and then comes the ‘hat’s the point in any of this, my sugar is meaningless among global suffering’.

CED or AED is almost a blessing and a curse at the same time, as one will have the cognitive capacity to think and reflect almost immediately rather than be propelled through life by impulses. However with that being said, it is very easy to be wrapped up in thoughts too limitless to practically base day to day decisions on. You do not have to compare your life to every other extraterrestrial activity, or light year.

The truth is, yes, the universe is infinite and unknown. Death is unavoidable, that is a fact. One simple truth in this grander picture is that you are here, gravity will not let you go now. So, allow the rest of the universe to do its thing around you, almost like a neighbour, and you must do yours too. Focus on the fact that existence is simply a layering of cause and effect, or in another word—consequence.

Release is in the detail

If you find yourself in a position where you are unable to dig yourself out of the depths of introspection, there are ways to find release from the discomfort. Sitting with it, and ignoring it, is consequently unsustainable.

As the topic of CED or AED worries lie within the enormity of life, and the part we all play in it, then do the opposite. Shift your focus on the minute, hone in on the consequence for a little while. This can be as simple as squeezing an orange to get its juice or finding its pips and planting them, to growing a tree. The chain of effect goes on, and it all started with you wanting orange juice.

Practice mindfulness

Simply be. Explore the feeling of the weight of your body on the ground, feel the texture of any materials around you, smell the air and notice its distinctness, listen to sounds that you are not making yourself. All of this is happening around you, small tiny fragments of the now are rippling and influencing human life as it is, regardless of what is happening elsewhere. Elsewhere is not where you are. Start small, start with you, with now.

Talk about it

Talk about it. Panic works like overflowing water, and talking about it is like opening a valve to let some of it out. There is no shame in talking about how you feel, there will always be someone to listen without judgement. Sometimes it’s not family, it’s not a friend, but maybe a stranger, a piece of paper, or an animal that can’t talk back. Just let yourself release your thoughts somewhere. Journaling is one of the most incredible releases, words on a page are there to be seen in their lucid permanence.

Pages allow you to pinpoint time and recognise patterns. You may begin to gain awareness of triggers, and finally deal with them. Or you may just write a stream of consciousness to never look back on, and that’s okay too. You are talking to and soothing the person that matters: you. Definitely a habit worth trying, whether you are struggling with an existential crisis or not, because what you do now always matters.