Existential Anxiety In The Age Of Covid-19
There’s a lot we don’t know about Covid-19, like its true mortality rate or whether it might mutate into something even more dangerous. We don’t know if it will kill us or someone we love. We don’t know its long-term impact on our modern way of life. All of these questions around Covid-19, and many more like them, remain unknowns at this point.
Wherever there is doubt there is also existential anxiety. When a situation is certain, when it’s completely knowable, we might experience many unwanted psychic states but existential anxiety won’t be one of them. Existential anxiety is cued off by various threats to our being where we haven’t yet been able to define or understand the object behind the threat. When we understand the threat we can gain the tools to face and hopefully overcome it. There might be a hostile force out there lying in wait but we no longer feel helpless in front of it, we no longer feel captive to its whims.
The pure terror that rises up in many of us when we contemplate what might happen to us after we die is a prime example of what existential anxiety is. Those who turn to religion are given an answer to the question of what happens after dying and this serves to get the free floating, hard to understand, extremely painful existential anxiety down to more tolerable levels.
In human life we’re always seeking to turn the unknowable into the knowable, which is why science and religion hold such revered places in the minds of so many. Science and religion each go about, in their own ways, reducing painful existential anxiety through trading uncertainty for certainty.
What we have seen and learned about Covid-19 is scary enough, but it’s all those unknown factors which are serving to make existential anxiety
skyrocket in the general population.
The point of this article is to help people get their existential anxiety under control through the simple process of bringing it into conscious awareness and naming it. Since the threat that cues off existential anxiety is unknowable the result for most of us in daily life is that we don’t spend any time trying to get to know our existential anxiety either. We unconsciously take the unknown threat and the existential anxiety cued off by it and combine the two into one big ball of terror, to be avoided at all costs.
Instead of sitting with and naming the terror we’re feeling we turn to various anxiety reducing behaviors to deal with the problem. Many of these behaviors are dysfunctional and unhelpful. The more panicked we are, the less helpful and more irrational the behavior will be, like stocking up on huge amounts of toilet paper.
When the terror rises up in us, the goal should simply be to name that terror as existential anxiety and to breathe into it without allowing the panic to take full control of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The panic has a name, its name is existential anxiety, and it’s being cued off by all of the unknowns around Covid-19.
Here’s what we do know: We know that washing our hands frequently, not touching our faces, and social distancing are the best tools we have at this point to protect ourselves and prevent the spread of the virus, so we should engage in those behaviors. We know that right now, despite the unknowns, we’re healthy in mind and body, so we can generate gratitude for that. And we know that whether or not we were paying attention before, we’re all on a mortality timeline. We can use that insight to live fully right now, to be kind and loving to those we care about, to not let stressors derail our growth and happiness, basically to live fully now while we still have the chance.
It’s a funny but true fact of human life that when we name and define something it instantly loses some of its power over us. The new understanding allows us to relate to the world differently and especially allows us to relate to that previously unknown threat differently. For many of us existential anxiety is itself an unknown threat, even though in reality it’s simply the feeling that arises as a response to an unknown threat. The first step is to get our panic and panic driven behavior under control, and we can do that by naming our existential anxiety in the moment and by committing to the behaviors known to reduce the threat.