Existential Anxiety in Coronavirus Times

Rather than being something that needs solving, anxiety might actually be an inevitable part of life that everyone will experience. That’s what existentialists would say anyway. And perhaps, somewhat ironically, anxiety isn’t something that we aim to perhaps eliminate, like we have done here in New Zealand with the coronavirus, but it might be something we need to learn to live with instead. 

In 1844, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way, has learnt the ultimate.” What you may be experiencing in these Coronavirus times might be something that feels different, deeper,  and beyond perhaps our usual fear or anxiety about day-to-day troubles.

This feels more existential.

So what do I mean when I say existential, or existential anxiety, or an existential crisis? Well, this usually means feelings of unease about meaning, choice, and freedom in life. Whatever you call it, the main concerns are the same: that the idea is that life is inherently pointless, that our existence has no meaning because there are limits or boundaries on it, and that we all must die someday.

That sounds pretty bleak. But it’s not an uncommon experience. It’s just that we don’t talk about it very much, and when we do experience it, we feel like we might be alone in our experience, so we keep it covered up.

But an existential crisis often occurs after major life events, such as:

  • Career or job change

  • Death of a loved one

  • Diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening illness

  • Entering a significant age category, such as 40, 50, or 65

  • Experiencing a tragic or traumatic experience

  • Having children

  • Divorce or even marriage.

For existentialists, an existential crisis is considered to be a journey, an awareness, and a necessary, if complex experience. And it comes from an awareness of your own freedoms and how life will end for you one day. And that journey may reveal to us that where there was structure and familiarity, now there is mystery, and unfamiliarity, and a sense of discomfort and feeling like somehow, things don’t fit so well any more.

Where there was certainty, there is now uncertainty, and unpredictability, meaning that we need to find our way again, in a place and time that feels unfamiliar to us. What served as well as navigation points in our lives perhaps don’t serve us well any more, and we find ourselves wondering what happens now, without much of a way of a script to help us.

And I think that this coronavirus journey is having an impact on us – whatever stage of the journey that we may be at – whether we are talking about personal journeys, or journeys of whole countries or regions of the world.

Contrast this with the certainty that was offered and based in action during Alert Levels 4 and 3, and the communications based on phrases like team of 5 million here in New Zealand. And this is evidenced in research that when we connect, especially in collective action, this can protect against the impact of disasters on our mental health and sense of agency.

But now – things feel different, with NZ almost being an outlier on the world stage, and our geographical remoteness, and the fact that its actually logistically hard to get here right now even if you wanted to, and also hard to leave too. That can contribute to this sense of isolation, collective loneliness and lead us to question what meaning there was in this collective action if we are left with uncertainty now.

But others elsewhere in the world are struggling with uncertainty too, but the parameters of what they are uncertain about are different. In many places in the world, you may be uncertain about the coronavirus itself – how it is tracking, whether it will continue to spread and whether you yourself or your loved ones may fall ill with it, or worse.

In New Zealand, perhaps we are lucky that we don’t have to worry so much about community transmission, not forgetting the hard work and sacrifice to get the country into this position. But there is perhaps a gap that’s been left that we are struggling to fill.

It’s not so much the presence of COVID-19 that presents New Zealand with our greatest challenge, but the absence of it.

One thing I have heard people talk about as they get to grips with their journey through the crisis, no matter if they are in New Zealand or in many places in the world, is that they are realising what may actually be important in their lives. The basics: like health, relationships, a safe and warm place you can call home. Dignity, freedom from persecution and discrimination. Being able to feed yourself and pay the bills.

So, an existential crisis might move you toward authenticity, which may also bring anxiety as you struggle for meaning. Now that the familiarity of your life has been stripped bare – what is your lifer about now? You might have thoughts about the fleetingness of your existence and how you are living it. When you stop taking for granted that you will wake up each day alive, you might experience anxiety, but at the same time deeper meaning too. It’s actually two sides of the same coin.

And it’s because of this, each of us must find a way to “live with” this anxiety rather than eliminate it. Experiencing an existential crisis can also be positive; it can guide you to question your purpose in life and help provide direction.

What can you do?

Is there a way to make an existential crisis a positive experience for you or someone you love? Well, perhaps – try these three things to help you to start to understand your journey.

Write it down. Can you let this existential anxiety motivate you and guide you toward a more authentic life? What can this anxiety teach you about your relatedness to the world? Pull out a notebook and jot down your thoughts on these questions. It’s in the answers to these questions that you may find how to cope with an existential crisis.

Seek support. Talking with loved ones about your existential anxiety can help you gain a different life perspective and remind you of the positive impact you’ve had on their lives. Ask them to help you identify your most positive and admirable qualities. And if you feel like that might be difficult for you, then you can find a trusted and qualified mental health professional instead and perhaps reflect with them on what’s troubling you.

You can also try meditation. Meditation can help you to reduce negative thoughts and help prevent anxiety and obsessive worry linked to an existential crisis.

In the end, the process of perhaps learning to live with this anxiety should possibly be framed as adaptation rather than recovery. And I think that might be a good way for people to think about this because adaptation means being able to constantly move as conditions change, rather than trying to recover to some imaginary fixed point which may or may never happen.

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