The most existentially anguished sigh you’ll hear comes from my chihuahua. Some days he strolls into the kitchen wearing his little black turtleneck sweater and smoking a Gauloise. He’ll give me a blasé look, sigh dramatically, and say, ‘L’homme est une passion inutile.’
I understand his angst better than his French. I had my first existential crisis at age seven in Bible school class. That day we were told our only purpose on Earth was to serve God and our reward would be spending eternity praising Him with songs. The thought of my life’s purpose being admission to a neverending church service made me uneasy. I sat in my little chair in my little pressed shirt and threw up a little vomit. At age seven I decided existence was pointless. Currently, many people may have similar feelings.
What Is an Existential Crisis?
An existential crisis occurs when you feel overwhelmed or insignificant in the face of uncertainty or death, resulting in intense bouts of anxiety, despair, or feelings of meaninglessness. This type of angst, according to classic existentialism, is a natural component of the human condition and can be brought on by a range of events including economic losses, confronting your mortality, or witnessing a world-changing occurrence. COVID-19 has essentially brought angst to your doorstep.
The crashing economy may force you to consider a new occupation. News of someone’s death may prompt you to contemplate your mortality. Perhaps you’re like me, quarantined with your in-laws, and finding amusement in existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s words ‘Hell is other people.’
Our evolved brains are predisposed to existential quandary and only need a spark to ignite anxiety. If we can identify from where our angst originates, we can take measures to manage our thoughts and fears, turning an existential crisis into an opportunity to forge a more purposeful version of humanity. Four major sources of angst are the questions we have about death, authenticity, freedom, and meaning.
Sources of Existential Angst
Death and Mortality
Despite the fact we know our demise is a foregone conclusion, we often struggle to reconcile ourselves to this eventuality. According to the existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, “For every man his death is an accident, and, even if he knows it and consents to it, it remains an unjustifiable violation.”
Death is inevitable yet we usually ignore it as we attempt to create legacies that will transcend our lifespan through family, art, business, science, and social impact. We’re so adept at ignoring death we can be shaken to our core when compelled to acknowledge the impermanence of life by a global pandemic.
Successfully addressing existential angst begins by being rational and recognizing what we cannot control. In this instance, we can mitigate risk but disease and death are facts of life. Most of us will survive this pandemic but all of us will die eventually.
There’s nothing macabre about accepting our mortality. Framing life in context to death can lead to a more fulfilling existence. Existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin D. Yalom writes in his book Existential Psychotherapy:
The integration of the idea of death saves us; rather than sentence us to existences of terror or bleak pessimism, it acts as a catalyst to plunge us into more authentic life modes.
Accepting death’s inevitability frees us to focus on what we can do with the resources and time we have remaining. Sitting in sequester with a loved one is a chance to share a slice of life we may not see again. We should embrace it. That sounds hackneyed because it is. We need constant carpe diem reminders in the form of t-shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and Facebook posts.
It’s normal to feel scared or uncomfortable when you hear worldwide deaths from COVID-19 just passed another milestone but we should channel that fear into ways to make the most of our fleeting lives.
Frankly, the prospect of death shouldn’t scare you as much as the prospect of leading an unfulfilling or inauthentic life.
Authenticity involves living with the intention and awareness of being the truest version of ourselves. We too often complicate matters by conflating who we are with the roles we play.
In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sarte describes how we try to deceive ourselves into believing we have less freedom than we actually do and that our choices are defined by circumstance and expectation. According to Sartre, we imagine ourselves as objects lacking free agency. I did this in my twenties when I chose a high-paying corporate job over continuing my post-grad studies. I told myself the money was too good to pass up and I was obligated to do the grownup thing. I got the suit, haircut, and briefcase and learned the lingo to play the boardroom part. I knew I could choose grad school but I ignored that freedom, convincing myself my decision was compelled by the expectations of family and society. Sartre calls such self-deception bad faith.
Sitting around the house with your usual bad faith distractions on hiatus, you might have a funny existential feeling, also known as existential guilt. That’s your existential compass self-correcting and warning you’re off course and need to get back on track. In the quiet of isolation, those warnings can become deafening.
Are you choosing your path based on what inspires you or are you doing what you believe you’re obligated to do? Are your decisions based on intention or convenience? Are you living or surviving? Circumstances can limit your options, but are you using your circumstances as an excuse for accepting a life that is less than what it could be?
We rarely take a breather in our busy world, so having one thrust upon us will give many people time for introspection they previously haven’t had. We’re already seeing an uptick in career changes come out of this time. Your funny existential feeling may prompt you to make a few changes yourself.
Freedom and Choice
Freedom entails accountability, which can create anxiety. Sartre said we are ‘condemned to be free.’ You bear the burden of responsibility for all your choices and actions.
Even simple choices can feel overwhelming. Consider a massive menu at a restaurant such as The Cheesecake Factory. The sheer number of options is stupefying. Sometimes I say ‘screw it’ and order my usual margarita and nachos. I resolve myself to accepting an option instead of making a choice. It’s trivial but still an example of leveraging a coping mechanism to avoid exercising my full faculties of freedom and choice.
Over the coming months, we will begin putting commerce and society back on track. There are many monumental decisions ahead and anxiety will be widespread in the post-COVID world.
People are weighing big decisions right now. Some are considering relocating to another city. After weeks of proximity in lockdown, divorce rates appear to be soaring. Are these wise moves? We never know until we make them.
Our freedom to make choices is often our greatest source of anxiety. However, anxiety implies on some level we understand the responsibility inherent in our decisions. Once we accept that this is both good and natural, we can begin separating the anxiety from the decision, allowing us more clarity to make meaningful choices.
Meaning and Purpose
Sartre stressed ‘existence precedes essence.’ In other words, there isn’t an a priori meaning to life. We are born into an indifferent universe with no purpose and it is up to us to seek out and create meaning.
You likely have ample time right now to read doomsday headlines and ruminate over yet another bag of potato chips. Your burgeoning ennui might give way to a sense of meaninglessness as you’re locked down in your home, removed from the parts of your life you thought provided meaning. Are you entertaining questions of who you are without an office, dinner reservations, or the gym? Maybe it’s been years since you’ve seen yourself without these superficial layers. Are you viewing your pre-isolation routines with uneasiness? Existential philosopher Albert Camus would posit you’re realizing existence is empty and the ways we attempt to ignore the emptiness are absurd. The good news is you’ve become an existentialist. Pick up your copy of Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus at the door on your way out.
Meaning is the chocolate at the center of existentialism’s croissant. We begin to define meaning for ourselves in our youth through family, friends, school, and activities. We accumulate and develop it as we age with achievements, relationships, career, religion, and community involvement. When we experience a crisis of meaninglessness, it is often because we’ve too narrowly defined our life’s purpose and used it as a proxy for greater meaning while ignoring other sources of personal fulfillment. People often report feeling isolated when this occurs. Yalom believes the best way to realign yourself is through social connection.
Embrace the solution of engagement rather than to plunge in and through the problem of meaninglessness.
When we lose engagement with those close to us we make identifying purpose in our lives more difficult. The balance of personal engagement with everything else we achieve and experience in life provides an enduring sense of meaning.
Some if not many of our distractions are currently in limbo. This might be unsettling but it also provides a fantastic opportunity to re-engage with those close to us, even over the phone or video chat. 2020’s pause in our normal routines provides all of us the chance to reinvigorate our lives with connection and purpose.
Managing an Existential Crisis
The first thing to realize when you’re experiencing these kinds of anxieties is your fears are common and justified.
- You can’t know for sure whether you’re making the right choices.
- There is no objective purpose to existence.
- Life is full of uncertainty.
- You are going to die.
Accept and embrace your existential angst. It is not only natural but also an indicator you’re actively paying attention to the world around you. Identify the source of your anxiety and ask yourself why that particular area concerns you. Then take action to work through your fears.
Seven Tactics for Tackling an Existential Crisis
- Talk about it. Virtually every piece of literature on how to handle existential fears suggests you discuss them with friends and family. Such engagement can add meaning to your life. This is especially true in times of trauma and loss. You might also consider discussion groups for your particular concerns.
- Write about your meaningful experiences, regardless of size. Write down ways you can create meaning in your life. Keep a gratitude journal and document everything that enriches your existence. Writing it down allows you to recognize and remember meaningful moments, taming your anxieties so you can then set goals for more purposeful living.
- Seek out answers in books, forums, classes, or mentors. There’s a world of existentialism on Youtube. Then break your existential crisis into bite-sized chunks and address them. Consider the impact you’ve made on the world in the past month instead of whether your life has an overarching purpose. Smaller answers anchor meaning to your days as you build up to addressing bigger questions.
- Maintain optimism. Existential moments are naturally pessimistic but can be turned into positivity once you acknowledge them. Dr. Jane Prelinger, an existential psychotherapist, advises, “Part of the existential is just acknowledging that ship has sailed…You mourn these realities so that you can move toward relinquishing them.” Recognize your negative thoughts then release them by finding a positive spin. For example, life is full of uncertainty but uncertainty means a world of possibility from which you can create a purposeful life.
- Meditation is another means for addressing existential dread. Observing your thoughts without judgment can reduce the panic you’re experiencing and shed light on its cause. There is a wide array of apps and online videos to help ground you in the present and explore the impermanence of existence. If you’re new to meditation, start with something simple and ease into it. I began my practice with the Waking Up app.
- Communal gatherings can help you sort out your existential despair. Religion has been the one-stop-shop for purpose. According to Dr. Clay Routledge, a renowned existential psychologist, religion benefits us by providing a belief structure that also includes a community and social engagement. If gods aren’t your thing, try something such as a hobby, interest, or passion involving a community. Even engaging in something like Ufology can enrich your life. Such pursuits offer a distraction from your immediate thoughts while providing a support network. The truth is out there.
- Seek counseling from people with the expertise to help you deal with your feelings if your angst worsens into depression. Contact the Existential-Humanistic Insitute for general questions, therapy, and classes. Also, websites such as Supportiv and Better Health offer 24-hour support for people grappling with these issues.
The planet might emerge from quarantine with existential anxiety swimming through the population. This indicates we’re looking for purpose and desire authenticity. As long as we identify our existential crises and address them accordingly, we can use them as tools to craft more satisfying lives. We may sail through this shitstorm and come out the other side a more purposeful version of ourselves, which my dog tells me, between drags from his cigarette, is ‘très bien.’