It is 2 in the afternoon. You are staring at your computer, trying to complete that report. But, you are unable to. Negative thoughts are racing through your mind -- “What is the point of my life?” you think. “What is the point of anything when I am eventually going to die?” “What difference will any of this make? And we all are eventually going to die,” you think. This is existential dread talking. Although everyone goes through it at some point in his/her life, you don’t need anyone else to tell you how difficult it can be to deal with a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness.
To understand better, what leads to such anxiety about existence, how is it different from depression, and how to cope with it, Onlymyhealth spoke to Dr Jyoti Kapoor, Sr. Consultant- Psychiatry, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram. “Existentialism is a philosophical approach that deals with issues of human existence,” said Dr Kapoor. And “existential dread or anxiety stems from the feeling of confusion or purposelessness of existence itself,” she added. Thoughts such as ‘what’s the point of my life,’ ‘what’s the point of living if one has to eventually die,’ and ‘why go through the struggle of building a life which you can’t control,’ goes through the person’s mind, Dr Kapoor explained.
Reason(s) Behind Existential Dread
There could be several reasons behind such a feeling:
- “Asking one’s purpose in life is not the problem, the crisis arises in face of acute trauma or deep disparity which doesn’t allow one to find a satisfactory answer to the questions,” the psychiatrist said.
- Negative events such as the death of a loved one can trigger such a thought cycle.
- Negative emotions such as guilt and frustration are another reason.
- Also, personality vulnerabilities like anxious, over-sensitive people with obsessive traits can create a fertile ground for the development of distress associated with the idea of a difficult existence.
- Certain personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder and obsessive personality can trigger this.
- Also, people with idealistic or perfectionist tendencies are more prone to delve into the questions of existence than others.
Existential Dread, Anxiety & Depression: What Is The Difference?
Existential dread and anxiety are sometimes used interchangeably. While we may all feel existential anxiety during traumatic or difficult circumstances, dread is a more intense form of anxiety that provokes escapist behaviour. On the other hand, depression is the feeling of sadness and loss of interest or motivation, whereas anxiety is more of activation of flight or fight response which leads to unpleasant feelings, uneasiness, and fear, the doctor explained.
What Can Existential Dread Lead To?
Existential questions like meaning and purpose of life for an unfulfilled individual can trigger a number of issues, such as:
- Obsessive ruminations causing an inability to relax
- Physical stress
- Tension with headaches, fatigue, and pain
- Severe crisis can trigger suicidal thoughts and even attempts
How To Deal With Existential Dread
If you are going through such a thing, here is how you can deal with it:
- Observe your thoughts from a neutral perspective, such as what triggered the thoughts, and deal with the underlying dissatisfaction.
- Don’t expect to find all answers, no one has all the answers.
- Live in the moment, life has a lot more to offer if we open ourselves to it.
- Maintain a gratitude journal. We have a tendency to ignore what we have or take them for granted.
- We choose our own destination and a path that leads to it, no one is born with a roadmap. This is the beauty of life. We all have choices and we may not feel we can make a choice today, but opportunities arise. We just need to be ready.
Also, if your thoughts become too overwhelming and you find it difficult to deal with the negativity, then it is best to seek professional help.
(With inputs from Dr Jyoti Kapoor, Sr. Consultant- Psychiatry, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram)
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