What Is Existential Anxiety?

Existential anxiety refers to a sense of worry, dread or panic that may arise from the contemplation of life’s biggest questions, such as “Who am I?” or “Why am I here?” Existential perspectives in philosophy and psychology contend that this contemplation leads inevitably to the realization that everyone has the freedom and responsibility to find meaning in life. Although this realization is inherently distressing, many existential thinkers view this form of anxiety as healthy and productive.


The notion of existential anxiety originated from within existential philosophy, especially as articulated by Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century. A focus on the processes by which individuals ascribe meaning to their lives defines the core of existentialism, although various theories diverge greatly on specific issues such as ethics. In the late 1950s, existentialist thought became popular in psychology through the work of psychologist Rollo May and his colleagues. Their theories drew heavily from the work of earlier philosophers and highlighted existential anxiety as an important component of mental health.


Existential anxiety arises when people deeply contemplate their existence. This contemplation leads to thoughts and feelings of freedom and responsibility, which burden the individual to find a purpose in life -- and to live genuinely according to this purpose. It may also lead to a sense of alienation and isolation in the world and a heightened awareness of mortality. German philosopher Martin Heidegger proposed in 1962 that existential anxiety can either be avoided by living “on the surface” of things or deeply embraced as an inherent part of being.


Existential psychologists have incorporated existentialism into a model of mental health, with a particular emphasis on the function of existential anxiety. They view this anxiety as both a normal and positive part of human experience and as a catalyst for growth. Furthermore, psychological problems such as depression often can be understood as manifestations of deeper concerns related to the meaning and purpose of one's existence.


Social scientists have begun to explore the claims made by existential philosophers and therapists regarding existential anxiety. Terror management theory, developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski in 1986, stands as the most widely researched existential theory in psychology. This theory of motivation posits that much of what people do, such as choosing mates and careers, can be viewed as attempts to suppress thoughts of mortality from conscious awareness and to quell existential anxiety. More than 300 experiments have provided support for this theory.


Existentialists do not view existential anxiety as a problem in need of treatment. When existential anxiety impairs daily functioning or begins to manifest as emotional or physical pain, however, traditional treatments for anxiety such as medication or talk therapy can be helpful. Furthermore, mental health professionals may conduct existential psychotherapy. Utilizing Heidegger’s ideas about either avoiding or embracing the anxiety, existential therapists aim to help people live more authentically and embrace the inherent predicaments of being human.

Reviewed by: Mary D. Daley, M.D.