Existential dread can hit us at any time, often prompted by significant life events, societal issues, or even seemingly random thoughts. If you’ve ever lain awake at night contemplating the meaning of life or the inevitability of death, you’re not alone. However, there are various coping strategies to manage these overwhelming thoughts and feelings, drawing from insights in psychological resilience and mental health.
Understanding existential dread
Existential dread refers to intense, unsettling thoughts or feelings related to life’s big questions. Themes can range from the meaning or purpose of life to concerns about mortality and freedom. Such pondering can induce anxiety, depression, or a feeling of being stuck.
While some amount of existential thinking is considered normal and may even be beneficial in promoting self-awareness and growth, excessive dwelling on these subjects can be detrimental to mental health.
The conundrum of existential dread is that it often forces people into a corner, making them feel isolated or overwhelmed, even as they seek to comprehend the complexities of life. This can create a vicious cycle where the anxiety feeds the existential thoughts, and those thoughts, in turn, exacerbate the anxiety.
But there are various coping strategies, such as mindfulness techniques, philosophical engagement, and professional counselling, that can help individuals navigate through this emotional labyrinth.
Addressing existential dread often involves a multi-faceted approach, combining psychological tools with philosophical insights to develop a more grounded, realistic perspective on life’s uncertainties.
Mindfulness as a coping tool
Practising mindfulness can offer immediate relief from existential anxiety. Mindfulness involves staying present and fully engaging with the here and now. It prevents you from getting lost in abstract thoughts and pulls your focus back to reality.
A study published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine demonstrated the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions in reducing symptoms of existential anxiety.
The role of human connections
Social support systems can offer solace during times of existential dread. Simply talking about your concerns with trusted friends or family can serve as a healthy outlet for your worries. Sometimes, a different perspective is all it takes to lessen anxiety.
According to a research, strong social connections can mitigate feelings of existential dread by fostering a sense of belonging and shared experience.
Participating in group activities or community events can provide a sense of purpose that counteracts the isolation often associated with existential concerns. Online forums and social media platforms focused on mental health can also offer an avenue for sharing and alleviating these worries, although they shouldn’t replace professional help when needed.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), an evidence-based form of psychological treatment, has shown promise in helping individuals challenge and reframe the negative thought patterns associated with existential dread. This goes hand in hand with philosophies such as existentialism, which encourages people to create their own meaning in life despite its inherent uncertainties.
A layered approach that includes social support, therapeutic interventions, and philosophical engagement can be highly effective in managing existential dread.
Cultivate an active lifestyle
Physical activity can be another excellent coping strategy. Exercise releases endorphins, which serve as natural mood lifters. Even a simple walk around the block can shift your focus and give you a break from overwhelming thoughts.
Physical exercise has been shown to reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, further promoting mental well-being. Engaging in physical activities that require focus and skill, like swimming, cycling, or even dancing, can help in achieving a state of “flow”, wherein one becomes fully immersed in the activity at hand.
This state not only distracts from existential dread but also can foster a sense of mastery and accomplishment, boosting self-esteem and providing a counter-narrative to feelings of helplessness or purposelessness. As part of a broader mental health strategy, incorporating regular physical activity can act as a powerful supplement to social support and psychological treatments.
Tackling existential dread may require an integrated approach that harmonises the mind and the body, bolstered by social connections and philosophical inquiry.
Reframe the narrative
Redefining what existential dread means to you can be empowering. Instead of viewing it as a paralysing force, consider it an opportunity for introspection and growth. By facing these significant questions head-on, you gain a deeper understanding of your values and what truly matters to you.
Taking this new perspective allows you to reframe existential dread as a catalyst for change, encouraging you to make more deliberate life choices based on your newfound understanding. Mindfulness and meditation can also aid in this process by helping you become aware of your thought patterns and feelings without getting caught in a spiral of negativity.
These practices not only provide relief from immediate distress but also equip you with the skills needed to handle future bouts of existential concern more effectively. Writing can also serve as a tool for exploration and redefinition; journaling your thoughts or even engaging in creative writing can offer insights into your existential questions. By actively taking steps to redefine and address your existential dread, you shift from a passive to an active role in managing your mental health, which is often the first step towards lasting improvement.
Seek professional help
If existential dread becomes too overwhelming, it may be helpful to consult a mental health professional. Therapists can provide tailored strategies to help you navigate existential concerns and improve your mental well-being.
Everyone faces existential questions at some point, but the key is to manage these thoughts in a way that enhances, rather than hampers, our lives. Using mindfulness, establishing human connections, staying physically active, reframing your narrative, and seeking professional help when needed are practical ways to cope with existential dread.
Charlotte Weaver is a licensed psychotherapist with a focus on existential psychology and mental resilience.