Existential flashes — moments where you become very aware of your own existence — can hit anytime, anywhere, and without invitation or fair warning. Maybe you’re riding your bicycle on a brilliant, blue day taking in the sights and scents around you, or perhaps you’re meandering through the stuffy aisles of your local grocery store on a busy Saturday afternoon. You could even be chilling in front of the TV — a pile of potato chip crumbs sprinkled evenly across your chest, causing you to notice that yes, you’re still here.
That sudden hyper-awareness of your own existence feels uncomfortable. And though it sometimes passes quickly, it can leave you with a lingering sense of discomfort about your place in this world. Give it too much thought, and you could even find yourself in a dark and winding hole of listless melancholy, or worse, straight up dread.
What is Existential Dread?
“Existential dread is the terror we experience in our awareness that we are transient beings acting out life on a precarious stage. It’s a phenomenon that’s universal among humans, but that varies in its intensity,” explained Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist. In other words, it’s the dread that results from being hyper-aware of yourself.
It’s sort of a blessing and a curse that we have these thoughts in the first place. Dr. Hokemeyer said that we experience these flashes because we have been gifted cognition — the capacity to think and reflect rather than being simply propelled through life by impulses.
“Unlike plants, reptiles, insects and living beings that simply grow towards nourishment, human beings have the capacity to be intentional with their lives. This intentionality comes with a price that includes responsibility, loss and regret,” said Dr. Hokemeyer.
The result is that we find ourselves in ‘flashes’ of time, ranging from hours to days and even months to years, where that uncomfortable introspection is unavoidable. It’s as if we’re inherently compelled to dig deeper.
CN Nash, a licensed therapist and author of Mirroring Effect, agrees. “Introspection over the meaning of one’s existence and identity has been a common and almost seemingly rite of passage for humans. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s natural to question the meaning of life,” she said. “Call me outlandish, but with only one life to live, I’d even say the urge to figure out one’s identity and purpose is actually non-bizarre.”
Are Some More Prone to Experiencing This Existential Dread?
Interestingly, some people are naturally more inclined to experience this sort of introspection. It can also be more common depending on where you’re at in your life, what sort of media you’re exposed to or the people you’re surrounded by.
“I believe people experience existential dread or flashes when they’re feeling a need for change or lack of purpose from something in their life. Or it could be lighter like something from a philosophy class, a book you’re reading or even social media,” said Lindsay Cooke, a licensed mental health counselor.
Dr. Hokemeyer added that “Some people are more prone to thinking about their existence than others. Typically, these are people who are emotionally wired to process life at a higher octave. For them, the world is an intense place. Lights are brighter, noises louder and other human beings intense.”
While contemplating these topics regularly and deeply can be a marker of intelligence, or indicate a greater sense of social responsibility within you, it can also can lead you to crawl up into your head without an escape route. This may create distance between you and others or lead to depression-like symptoms such as a decreased interest in daily activities, setting goals or building relationships.
Working Through the Dread
If you find yourself overwhelmed by existential flashes that disrupt your day, are unable to dig yourself out of the depths of introspection, or are at the precipice of a crisis, you’re not alone. Remember, existential dread is a very real part of the human condition, and it’s normal to experience these thoughts. That said, sitting in discomfort — especially if it’s disrupting your life — isn’t sustainable. We asked the experts for advice on how to work through the dread, and here’s what they said:
Focus on yourself: “Embrace who and where you are now. One of the core foundations in existential psychotherapy is the belief that we shouldn’t rely on the validation of others. How freeing is that? You may find yourself feeling the unnecessary pressure of constantly trying to fulfill expectations that aren’t even your own,” said Nash. “Challenge that by sitting down and creating an ‘Authentic List’ where you list all the wonderful qualities and even flaws you currently have. It’s alright to still hold onto goals of the person you aspire to be, but in order to become that future version of yourself, you have to face today’s version of yourself first.”
Practice mindfulness: Studies suggest the best way to cope with these types of feelings is to utilize mindfulness skills such as meditation, deep breathing, counting and awareness of the present. “There are some great apps that assist with meditation, such as Headspace or Calm. They’re free and help you build the skill of meditation,” advised Cooke. “I also believe that exploring what it is that is making you feel this lack of direction and then forming short and long-term goals can be helpful in grounding oneself in the moment.”
Process with a friend: In addition to focusing on yourself, make sure to let others in as well. “Even though we like to hide out from one another, we are all connected,” said Dr. Hokemeyer. “Find one, or a few, kindred spirits and discuss life and death, relationships and health, money and all the other topics that people think they are too busy or too important to talk about.”
Nash agreed wholeheartedly, noting that it’s important to “Challenge any moments you feel completely isolated and alone by connecting to other people. Regardless if you’re an extrovert or introvert, humans were designed with the capacity to fellowship.”
Don’t forget to laugh: “Laugh at yourself and the world around you,” said Dr. Hokemeyer. “The state of world affairs are comical — yes, tragically comical — but comical none the less. Please never forget to laugh. It’s the salve that will heal the existential rashes that fester in all of us.”
Experience it rationally: Rather than trying to get through this crisis by fighting it, try to experience it rationally. “Understand that you’re a microcosm in a much larger system and you play your role, like everyone else, even if you don’t see it,” said Neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez. “Use the crisis as a growth; make resolutions that otherwise wouldn’t stick, such as volunteering more, writing that book, spending more time with your parents — whatever makes your feel fulfilled.” Also, remind yourself that like most crises, this too shall pass.