February 10th, 2024
Guest writer for Wake Up World
True story: my first word as a baby was “no.” One of my favorite series of books as a child was A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’ve woken up quite a few times with a voice of dread in my head saying, “Oh great, I’m on this planet again.”
And, well, I run this website for spiritual outsiders and wanderers called lonerwolf for chrissakes.
Don’t worry, I’m not depressed. I’m just very well acquainted with the sensation of existential dread.
I mean, if you’re not feeling some level of existential dread, I don’t know what rock you’re living underneath or what social media-induced self-reinforcing bubble you’re in, but the fact is that things kind of suck right now badly.
Why Having Existential Dread is NORMAL
Being socially maladjusted and feeling anxious, depressed, or sickened on some level right now, being on this planet, isn’t just a normal response but a healthy reaction.
In the words of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti,
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
So what are we to do with all this existential dread we carry?
Should we descend into self-centered anarchy and nihilism? Should we go the opposite extreme and become bigoted fundamentalists or tribalists seeking to recreate a sense of superficial safety? Should we collapse in on ourselves and throw up our arms, weeping in despair?
While it may be tempting to do that, I propose a different approach founded on ancient wisdom, which we’ll explore in this article.
Trigger Warning and Gentle Words of Support
Before we go further, I feel that this section is important to include. So please read it:
If you’re in a mentally or emotionally unstable place, I recommend skipping to this section of the article for immediate practical advice.
If you don’t want a heavy read or feel really sensitive right now, see my guide on 100+ Journaling Ideas For Deep Mental & Spiritual Healing or my highly rated Self-Love Journal for more support.
If you’re experiencing a spiritual crisis, you can find out more information and specialized resources in our spiritual emergency article.
And if you’re concerned about your mental health and are experiencing suicidal ideation, please get in touch with one of the following hotlines as soon as possible. There is always compassionate help and guidance waiting for you.
What is Existential Dread?
Existential dread, also known as existential angst or existential anxiety, is the feeling of distress and overwhelm we experience when we are faced with forces that are greater than our capacity to solve or alleviate.
Existential dread can produce feelings of anxiety, persistent worry, grief, and sometimes deep-seated terror. These feelings can come and go relatively quickly, or they can accompany us almost everywhere, forming the backdrop of experiences such as the existential crisis or Dark Night of the Soul.
“The World is Burning and Everyone’s Gonna Die!” – Examples of Existential Dread
Here are some examples of existential dread to illustrate it better:
- Feeling existential dread when contemplating the climate crisis and how future generations are actually going to thrive or survive.
- Feeling existential dread when waking up in the morning to commute to a job that you hate only to make a minimum wage and barely get by while contemplating the purpose of your life.
- Feeling existential dread when realizing that you or your loved ones could die at any time for any reason.
- Feeling existential dread when diagnosed with a serious health condition and contemplating your own death, as well as reassessing the choices you’ve made in life and being plagued by feelings of regret.
- Feeling existential dread when observing the gluttonous consumerism of humanity for which you have very little capacity to fully change quickly, that is rapidly destroying the planet on which we all depend and are inextricably connected.
Are there any examples of existential dread from your own life that you’d like to share that are not mentioned above? Feel free to leave a comment below. Sometimes, naming what we feel can be quite therapeutic.
13 Existential Dread Signs
Not sure if you’re experiencing existential dread or not? Here’s a simple list of signs:
- You lack a sense of motivation in your daily life, and you can’t be bothered to do or achieve much.
- You often feel emotionally drained or burned out, and therefore, you feel sensitive, touchy, or otherwise numb around others.
- You lack a feeling of optimism or hope and instead feel cynical and empty inside.
- You feel like an aimless wanderer in life without purpose or a sense of direction.
- When you think about the future, there’s not much that excites you.
- You feel impotent and overwhelmed with emotions such as fear or despair when you contemplate the state of the planet and society.
- You have addictive tendencies such as using social media too much, overeating, overspending, excessive drinking, etc., to avoid your existential dread.
- You have a tendency to ‘doom scroll’ on social media and get sucked into negative comments and news spirals, which further reinforces your painful feelings and mental state.
- Your mind tends to race quickly, and you often have catastrophic thoughts.
- You have poor sleep quality, and you often wake up feeling a sense of dread or a wave of anxiety.
- You feel intensely separate from others, find it hard to relate to those around you, and are stuck in an isolated bubble.
- You’re intensely aware of your mortality and the fragility of life, which causes feelings of powerlessness and sadness.
- You struggle with a sense of existential loneliness and separation from the divine (also known as soul loss).
When prolonged, existential dread can often turn into existential depression, especially if you’ve experienced some kind of shock or trauma in your life, like the death of a loved one, a relationship breakdown, the loss of a job, poverty, war, or some other crisis.
Existential Dread and Spiritual Awakening – The Hidden Gifts
I remember experiencing existential dread so badly that even just sitting in a car would invoke catastrophic realizations that at any immanent moment, all my loved ones and I could die – or take a walk in the park without fearing that I’d catch a debilitating sickness (thanks COVID).
But here’s the thing: existential dread can be a blessing in disguise because it shakes us out of the monotonous stupor of day-to-day life.
When seen through the lens of opportunity, the pain of existential dread shakes us to awaken us. It asks us to pay attention, live more consciously, and search for that which most deeply calls to our hearts and souls.
If you were only ever to exist in a mediocrely “okay” state of unawareness, you wouldn’t be inspired to quit that soul-sucking job, make more compassionate decisions for the planet, or go searching for deeper explanations and alternative paths away from the established norm that positively transform your life.
Existential dread is often the precursor to having a spiritual awakening where, like Neo in The Matrix, we begin to sense that something is “off” in our lives.
We’re then inspired to go soul searching outside of the matrix-like system we’re born into, heal deep wounds, rediscover our gifts, and awaken to the mystical reality of who we truly are beneath the ego.
But for there to be a spark of awareness, there must often be some form of pain first, and it must be sufficiently large enough to prompt us to leave our comfortable but constricting bubbles– and that’s the role that existential dread plays.
Existential Dread: 7 Ways to Regain Sanity and Peace
Lonerwolf is a space that can paradoxically help you not feel so alone – especially existentially and spiritually.
As I said before, feeling existential dread is a normal and healthy human reaction to the pain and destruction ravaging the world these days. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is either delusional, emotionally numb beyond comprehension, psychopathically uncaring, or trying to sell you something.
If you’re experiencing existential dread and want to regain some level of sanity and peace, here are seven suggestions based on personal experience and gathered from the wisdom of our cross-cultural ancestors:
1. Logotherapy – Find the Meaning in Your Existential Dread
There’s so much information these days on the “six steps to success,” “how to be a successful soulpreneur,” the “quantum masterclass certification program in finding happiness,” yadda yadda yadda.
When I get overwhelmed with information, I go back to first principles. I look to the past to tried and tested philosophies, teachings, and spiritual practices that have stood the test of time.
One of those is logotherapy, created by someone I fully trust in helping me to navigate through my existential dread, which was holocaust survivor, doctor, and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.
I won’t go into the story of Frankl, as you can look that up yourself. But he essentially developed a school of psychotherapy which was put to the test in the fires of hell (Nazi concentration camps), and it confirmed that those who were focused on fulfilling a meaning in life were more likely to survive.
Logotherapy means “healing through meaning” in Greek, and it encourages us to find the deeper meaning in our painful life experiences – in this case, in our existential dread.
In the words of Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning,
Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Meaning can be found through creation (creating something and sending it out into the world), experience (pursuing experiences like truth, beauty, goodness, love), and attitudes (choosing how we see the world). (Source)
Some logotherapy-ish questions you can ask yourself or journal about are:
- What’s the greater purpose behind this pain?
- What is the hidden opportunity in this suffering?
- How can I transform these feelings and create something beautiful from them that can help others?
I encourage you to keep looking into logotherapy if you’re interested in going deeper. The book Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl is a good place to start.
2. Choose the path of the Bodhisattva
One of the first tenets of Buddhism is that “life is suffering.” If you experience existential dread, that will be blatantly obvious by now!
Thankfully, within Buddhism – which can be either a secular philosophy or a religious path, depending on which road you choose – there’s a beautiful term known as the ‘bodhisattva.’
In the words of my favorite Buddhist teacher and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh,
A bodhisattva is someone who has compassion within himself or herself and who is able to make another person smile or help someone suffer less. Every one of us is capable of this.
Now, more than ever, we need more bodhisattvas on this planet. There are enough depressed, nihilistic, cynical people already, which is valid.
But we need people courageous enough to choose a path of heart, a path of active kindness toward others.
In the words of yoga and meditation instructor Sara-Mai Conway,
In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva is someone who has taken a vow to put others first. Ordinarily, we are self-centered beings. We tend to think of ourselves first, and we’re primarily concerned with our own happiness, gain, and fame … But with daily meditation, we develop a greater sense of compassion that widens as our wisdom increases. We discover true happiness comes from ensuring the happiness of others and that, just like us, everyone only wants to be free from their pain. As we heal ourselves, we naturally become inclined to want to heal others.
Experiencing existential dread gives us a first-hand experience of the kind of pain that others undergo as well – it helps us to be truly compassionate and understanding and can be the motivation to adopt a bodhisattva path (which overlaps with the idea of being a ‘lightworker’ in modern spiritual lingo).
I recommend my article on 7 Signs You’re a Bodhisattva In-the-Making if you’d like to go deeper into this path.
Other practices to cope with or transform existential dread:
3. Explore the philosophy of Stoicism (not to be confused with the lower case ‘stoicism,’ which is all about being unemotional and stiff-lipped, which Stoicism as a philosophy isn’t about), which can help you to access more inner strength, find peace in the middle of emotional and mental chaos, cultivate virtuous qualities, and focus on what you can control and accept what you can’t.
4. See from a greater vantage point by challenging your mental spirals by identifying cognitive distortions. Common cognitive distortions (aka., twisted and negatively biased ways of thinking) include jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, mental filtering, polarized thinking, and overgeneralization. Search for “cognitive distortions pdf” on your web browser, and you’ll find some great resources and examples to work with. You can also see my “toxic core beliefs” article for additional insight.
5. Orient to joy through the practice of mindfulness. Here, we have a mixture of somatic psychology and Eastern spiritual practice. Orienting to joy in a mindful way helps to soothe the nervous system, which takes you out of the ramped-up fight, flight, fawn, or freeze response and into the rest, relax, and digest mode of being. Make a habit each day out of deliberately looking for ten things that bring you joy. Journal about them or simply note them throughout your day. Even the tiniest things can be a source of gratitude, like a bird call or a drop of water in a puddle (and being grateful is scientifically proven to have humongous mental health benefits).
6. Create space in your life, set social media boundaries, and stop doom scrolling. This point is self-explanatory. Doom scrolling does nothing good for your mental or emotional health, so just stop, okay? You can still stay up to date with the news (if you want low stimulus and low clickbaity news, see Wikipedia’s homepage). Ensure that you create space and make time to relax, maybe with a soothing hobby, instead of wasting that time filling your head with sensationalist comments and news stories. Remember that negativity appeals to our reptilian brains that look out for threats, and therefore, it sells – positive stories are not as popular, and therefore, they’re ignored and largely left out of the news. But they do exist. The following subreddits are great places for feel-good content: r/MadeMeSmile, r/UpliftingNews, r/GoodDeedOfTheDay, and r/HumansBeingBros.
7. Express how you feel and let it out. Keeping all that existential dread pent up inside ain’t good for you. So find a way to let it out, whether through journaling, creating art, singing, doing a form of full-body catharsis, or talking to someone you trust if that’s accessible to you right now. Do it! You’ll feel something shift within you, and it can help you regain a semblance of sanity and peace again, even just a little.
I recommend re-reading through parts of this article and really taking it in. I’m serious – this isn’t meant to be a 15-second TikTok clip that you just watch, discard, and move on from quickly. I mean, you could do that. But it would be a pity, as there’s so much guidance that can be potentially life-shifting here.
Once you’ve re-read and revisited some of what I’ve shared above, you have the option to keep exploring elsewhere in your own way. Or, you might like to keep exploring here.
Here are some resources that can offer further help:
- Feeling Disconnected & Sad (7 Healing Paths) – an article that explores how to soothe the feeling of isolated loneliness
- Meaning of Life VS. Purpose of Life (the Difference!) – an article that explores this perennial existential question in a unique and clearly defined way
- Dark Night of the Soul Journal – a premium structured workbook that can guide you through existential dread
- Shadow & Light Membership – a premium ongoing weekly guidance that can support you on your spiritual journey, with myself and Mateo as your companions
It is better to look suffering straight in the eye, acknowledge and respect its presence, and then get busy as soon as possible focusing on things we choose to focus on.
– Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
Existential dread is something we all suffer and face at some point in life. We are all in the same boat here, and the experience of existential angst is a shared human experience. So, let’s normalize it!
I’ve presented numerous powerful practical, philosophical, and spiritual approaches in this article that can help you cope with or transmute existential dread. Please go back and revisit them to decide where you want to get started.
Although there is much to feel unsettled by, there is also much to be grateful for, and there is, as Viktor Frankl put it, the last of human freedoms, to choose our mindset and our own path ahead.
What advice would you give someone else suffering existential dread? This is an opportunity to transform your pain into power and give back in a life-enhancing way – so share some words of insight in the comments below!
About the author:
Aletheia Luna is a prolific psychospiritual writer, author, and spiritual mentor whose work has touched the lives of millions worldwide. As a survivor of fundamentalist religious abuse, her mission is to help others find love, strength, and inner light in even the darkest places. She is the author of hundreds of popular articles, as well as numerous books and journals on the topics of Self-Love, Spiritual Awakening, and more. See more of her work at lonerwolf.com.
This article, Existential Dread: 7 Ways to Regain Sanity and Peace, was originally published on lonerwolf.com, reproduced with permission.