Existential Anxiety in a Time of Great Unknowns


By Rachel Walpert Fairbrother

Registered Psychologist at Pine Integrated Health Centre 

In watching the news lately, one is filled with a sense of surrealism. We are witnessing a global health crisis not seen in our lifetime. Frequent news cycles and social media bombard us with stories of the effects the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our society, economy, and daily life as we knew it. This is being felt not only in our own backyards, but globally.

If you are experiencing heightened anxiety, you are not alone.  This anxiety may also feel different than what you have experienced before. That’s because it’s probably existential anxiety.

Existential anxiety refers to a deeper-rooted anxiety, or angst, all humans experience in relation to the things we value, or fear, the most.  We constantly seek meaning, freedom, safety & security, but also fear death, isolation, or change.  A global health crisis, not surprisingly, is the perfect recipe for existential anxiety.  It has brought rapid and unprecedented change to our lives as we know them, and an overarching concern for humanity as a whole.

Normally, when presented with a threat (i.e. a grizzly bear while hiking), we are able to assess the risk quickly and scan for resources in our environment to manage the risk (fight, flight or freeze). When facing a global pandemic however, this threat is bigger, and farther-reaching. Our ability to scan for resources is limited, particularly when so little is known about the novel coronavirus.  When the risk is this profound, and resources are deemed insufficient, we are left with a feeling of helplessness, or existential anxiety.

Here are some strategies to help manage existential anxiety:

Limit Social Media & News Coverage:

When we feel anxious, we are more inclined to seek information in hopes that the more we learn, the less anxiety we will feel. In reality, the opposite effect often happens. The more we learn or hear about COVID-19, the more overwhelmed we may feel due to the sheer amount and variance of information available. We may experience information overload, and our brains will be unable to sift through all this information in hopes of managing the threat. Pacing ourselves by only watching one news update per day, or limiting ourselves to only one source of information (the WHO or Centre for Disease Prevention Website are reliable sources, for example) may help to avoid the degree of anxiety we experience.

Accept Anxiety for What it Is and Build Tolerance for the Unknowns:

Anxiety has an important role in nature. It exists to alert us to a threat, and allows for a quick assessment of the risk to manage it efficiently. Unfortunately, in a time such as this, the threat we are experiencing is real and the unknowns are endless. Therefore, it cannot be managed quickly as the ultimate outcomes of this pandemic are still very much unknown.

Being able to recognize when we are feeling anxious, and understand why it is taking place may help. It won’t make the feelings of helplessness or fear go away; but accepting that it is a natural protective mechanism triggered when faced with danger, uncertainty or change, it can be made more manageable. Allowing ourselves to sit with these feelings, rather than trying to distract ourselves or seek out more information, can help us develop greater emotional tolerance of anxiety, as well as things out of our control.

Ground Ourselves in Activities that Bring Us Meaning:

Health threats are particularly anxiety provoking because they trigger fears surrounding our mortality. This is one of the greatest existential anxieties: fear of death. By grounding ourselves in activities that bring us back to what is meaningful for us, we will feel more connected to ourselves and less anxious about the unknowns. Although social distancing will restrict many activities and require some creativity, we can still connect with loved ones virtually, engage in hobbies from home, and reflect on what is most important and meaningful to us.

Remind Ourselves that Humans are Resilient:

As humans, our tendency is to expect the worst-case scenario. This leads to an underestimation of how well we, and society, will cope with the event. Although COVID-19 is a novel virus we still know little about, it is important to remember that humans have frequently overcome challenges throughout history. Paying attention to what is working, and offering help when possible, will increase our confidence that humans are in fact, resilient.

Self-Care, Self-Care, Self-Care:

Getting adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise, and fresh air will help us stay physically and emotionally well-balanced during this time of social distancing and self-isolation. Self-care is the backbone to managing anxiety, and is of upmost importance at a time like this. Engaging in activities that help to calm and ground us, whether it be going for a walk, listening to music, soaking in the tub, or cuddling our favorite fur baby, should be on our daily to do list.

Working from home, caring for children who are usually in school, or being disconnected from our usual routines can make it hard to find a new balance. But even one self-care activity a day can help us feel a bit less overwhelmed.

Seek Professional Help if Needed:

If you notice your mental health, or someone’s that you love, is suffering, do not hesitate to reach out. We are being thrust into a new normal, and it will take time to adapt.

Would you like someone to talk to? Pine Health has expert therapists that offer both in person and online counselling sessions. Click below to learn more and book your appointment today!

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