Existential anxiety is something that many people around the world will suffer from at some point in their lives. A variety of experiences and situations can easily provoke questions about existence, the nature of life and human purpose.
Sometimes these mini moments of existential crisis come unexpectedly. In a moment of respite at work for example, or brought on by a sudden sense of deja vu or synchronicity. Some of us take these moments and have built them into a whole body of philosophical thought stretching back thousands of years.
For an unlucky few however, existential anxiety can be a recurring problem that proves difficult to deal with. Studies from around the world have shown that between 4 and 5% of a population will regularly suffer 'crises of meaning' throughout their lifetime. So what are the different forms of this possibly damaging mental stress and what steps are commonly taken to beat it?
'Growing evidence indicates that religious belief helps individuals to cope with stress and anxiety' found one study in 2013 and this sentiment has been echoed throughout time. Sincere belief in a God and the afterlife is a proven way of lessening the chances of existential anxiety in day to day life.
People throughout history have dealt with existential fears and anxieties by throwing themselves, and their lifestyle choices, into religious doctrine by becoming monks, nuns or entering other holy callings. However since the 1950s the number of people in religious orders has decreased worldwide by a 'devastating' amount. The number of nuns in the US for example has fallen from 180,000 in 1965 to just shy of 50,000 in 2017.
Although a big help for many, religion is not always a solution to existential anxiety for everyone.
Existential anxiety can be used in a healthy and positive manner, if those afflicted can channel these thoughts into finding a purpose for their existence.
It is recommended that people prone to anxiety maximize the amount of time spent doing pleasurable or rewarding activities. This keeps the mind locked into the present moment and away from anxious thoughts. If you can't do so immediately due to economic or physical circumstances, start working towards fixing that.
Make goals for your life and immerse yourself in completing them. If you're looking for inspiration, a good idea might be to keep a 'gratitude journal' of the things that do make you happy in your life and then use these as a basis of what to aim for.
Philosophy has helped many people come to terms with existential anxiety over thousands of years of human existence. There is even a field of philosophy called existentialism, dealing with these exact questions and feelings.
One of the most iconic philosophers of this school was Frenchman, Jean-Paul Sartre. In his most famous book, Being and Nothingness, he wrote that existence comes before essence. What does he mean by that? Well in his own words - 'What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.'
Existentialism posits that there is no purpose to human existence at all and that we create all the meaning in our lives ourselves. To some this could be a liberating and exciting prospect. For others it may fill them with despair.
The simple act of writing, talking, singing or drawing about feelings (basically any kind of creative activity) has been scientifically proven to have a positive effect on your mental outlook and help alleviate existential anxiety.
For those in the grips of existential anxiety it may feel like life has no meaning or purpose, but a concrete contribution to society, or at least your own experience of it, can have profound effects.