Sitting With Existential Anxiety
Existential anxiety always has mortality, symbolic or real, as its backdrop. The death of a loved one, the rupture or an important relationship, dismissal from a cherished group or occupation, or any other important loss all make painful existential anxiety bubble up into conscious awareness.
What most of us don’t consciously realize is that being exposed to symbolic or real death is not only painful because of the loss of the cherished object but is also painful because we are compelled to confront our own mortality. At some level of awareness, from barely conscious discomfort to full on conscious terror, we are reminded that we’re not immortal, that we’re on a timeline just like everybody and everything else, that sooner or later our timeline will reach its own endpoint and we’ll cease to exist in our current forms.
So when we’re exposed to real or symbolic death we get attacked from all sides. We must deal with the loss of the cherished object, with various secondary losses that ride in the wake of the primary loss, with our own mortality, with the nature of existence and our place in it, with meaning and meaninglessness, and of course with the painful existential anxiety being cued off by all of these things. It can seem like too much to bear, which is why most of us don’t confront our existential anxiety or the underlying reasons for it directly. We instead divert our attention away from it through various distractions, like excessive drug or alcohol use, promiscuous activity, overspending, overworking, overeating, binge watching, obsessive thinking, etc. Anything and everything to avoid an honest encounter with that terrifying, ephemeral, hard to define feeling that is existential anxiety, that is the threat of nothingness.
We can think of the black cloud of existential anxiety as a wall that keeps us from exploring the aspects of our life situations that set it off to begin with, which therefore keeps us from the important insights that could help us grow and reach a new sense of wholeness in our lives and relationships. We avoid confronting existential anxiety as a way to protect ourselves but we end up doing far more damage to ourselves in the process. Until we can fully accept the finality of what has occurred our psychic attention remains fragmented, we remain unable to approach people and the world with all of our energy and attention, with all of our being.
We must first summon up the courage to recognize existential anxiety and then invite it into our psychic living rooms rather than constantly ignoring it, minimizing it, or running away from it. A complicating factor in sitting with existential anxiety is that the associated physical symptoms make us feel like we’re going to die, which shouldn’t be surprising since existential anxiety has mortality as its defining feature. We can summon up the energy of mindfulness to help us bear the painful energy of existential anxiety better. One of the most effective ways to do this is with a simple body scan, where we move through the parts of our body being affected by our existential anxiety, like palpitations, pounding heart, tight chest, excessive sweating, uncontrollable trembling and shaking, shortness of breath, choking sensations and difficulty swallowing, numbness or tingling in extremities, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and lightheadedness, and hot and cold flashes, all while reminding ourselves that as long as we’re in a safe location then right now we’re safe, right now the feeling that we’re going to die is largely an illusion. One day we we will die but not right now, right now we’re okay.
We have to remember that we would never want to eradicate anxiety completely. Anxiety alerts us to immediate physical threats in our environment, it’s an adaptive response to the dangerous stimuli around us and it has served us very well on many occasions over the course of our lives. It served our ancestors very well too. So we have to make our relationship with our existential anxiety more friendly, less adversarial. We can decide to invite it in to sit with us for a while so that it can convey its profoundly important message. We can decide that we will run from it no longer. We can realize that it doesn’t really wish us any harm but has no other vocabulary to remind us to pay closer attention to the profoundly important changes and losses that are about to occur or may have already occurred though we have not yet come to accept them.
We might say that sitting with existential anxiety, without censure or judgment, is the first and most important step in moving through grief in order to regain a sense of wholeness. We can’t fully engage with people and the world, we can’t be our best selves, and we can’t have really healthy relationships unless we feel whole. As soon as we’re able to name a thing it immediately loses its power over us and existential anxiety is no different. The key is to stop recurring to the various defense mechanisms meant to protect us and to instead recognize existential anxiety when it arises and then invite it into our psychic living rooms as if it were a long lost friend rather than a dangerous adversary.