Are You Suffering From Existential Dread?

How to tell if everything is meaningless or if everything is just meaningless

Tyler Elliot Bettilyon

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Illustration: Dalinas/Getty Images

Does it feel like you’re trapped in an infinite Sisyphean nightmare? Does your personal hell feel trivial compared to the eternally expanding wasteland of the cosmos? Do you feel that in spite of its lack of cosmic significance, life on Earth is exhausting, all-consuming, and about to come to an end?

If you frequently think humanity has earned the rancorous apocalypse lurking just beyond the horizon, you might be suffering from existential dread.

The most common form of existential dread, Acute Existential Dread (AED), is an intense feeling of inconsequentiality triggered by external stimuli. I spoke with Tina, who suffers from AED. She told me the dread can come at you fast: “It’s like, you look up at the stars and think about the sheer enormity of it all — but you can still hear Donald Trump reading his tweets aloud in the back of your head — and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘fuck it… maybe humans really don’t deserve a planet as incredible as Earth.’”

AED is a well-known side effect of psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin, but it can also be triggered by opening your eyes, overhearing cable news soundbites, and catching your own eye contact in the mirror while brushing your teeth. Tina says that AED can hit you anytime. “Sometimes I’ll walk outside on a beautiful summer day, but the heat reminds me that all the ice caps are melting and 30 years from now this whole city will be underwater. It makes me sad — but at the same time nothing really matters — so maybe I should calm down and accept that we’re all going to die in a disappointing Waterworld kind of apocalypse, not a really badass one like The Terminator.” When I reminded Tina that according to Elon Musk it could still be both, she curled up into a ball and cried.

The most common form of existential dread, Acute Existential Dread (AED), is an intense feeling of inconsequentiality triggered by external stimuli.

Fortunately for Tina, most cases of AED can be overcome through distraction, intoxication, buying stuff, or holding a puppy. Tina…

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Tyler Elliot Bettilyon

A curious human on a quest to watch the world learn. I teach computer programming and write about software’s overlap with society and politics. www.tebs-lab.com