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As a Therapist, Here Are 4 Ways to Cope With Existential Dread

Instagram, TikTok, Facebook—no matter where we go on social media, we’re inundated with someone else’s accomplishments like buying a house, landing a dream job, having a child, getting married, the list goes on.

Seeing people living their #bestlife can often make us question the trajectory of our own lives. We might start feeling FOMO or wonder if we’re behind or not worthy or good enough to have what other people seem to have.

Part of what can fuel existential dread is fixating on the past and future, which can lead to feeling like nothing will ever get better. When we come back to the present, we can feel those negative sensations subside.

While you’re scrolling through those highly-curated feeds, I can guess that (at least once) your stomach has turned with dread. After your stomach quelled itself, thoughts of uncertainty about your own life likely started popping up. That stomach drop sensation and uncertainty about the life ahead is what’s known in therapy-speak as existential dread.

It’s super common and nothing to be ashamed about but you’ll want to get a handle on it ASAP before it starts to impact your mental health.

At a Glance
We’re living in a super stressful time. Many people are working nonstop, some people may be struggling to find work or to find work that pays well. Politics and talk about the climate are stressful too. All of these combined can lead to feelings of existential dread. This dread is defined by intense worries about our futures. The good news is that there are ways to quell these fears.

Millennials and Zoomers (aka Gen-Z) May Be Feeling Existential Dread the Most
Wonder how I’m so certain about this? I’m a psychotherapist and hear this sentiment often in the therapy room, especially from those in their early 20s and up to their early 40s.

Let’s Talk About Some of the Factors That Can Lead to Existential Dread in Younger Generations
While a lack of lust for life can occur at any age, Millennial (those born between 1980 and 1994) and Gen-Z (those born between 1995 and 2012) generations are hit with a unique set of circumstances.1

Climate anxiety: A report published by the Pew Research Center in 2021 found Gen-Z and Millennial folks to be more engaged with addressing climate change than those from Gen-X and Boomer generations.2Furthermore, they’re personally taking action, speaking about climate issues, and engaging with social media content focused on our changing earth at a higher rate than their predecessors. Translation: These generations are bearing the burden of our earth’s uncertain future more than anyone else.
Financial stress: These circumstances don’t stop at climate change—millennials hold nearly a third of all student loan debt.3 This creates an immense amount of finance-related stress. To cope with the stress, young people turn to substances, smoking, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with it all.4
Poor mental health overall: As for overall mental health? The American Psychological Association found Gen-Z individuals to have poorer mental health outcomes than other generations and are more likely, as are millennials, to have received mental health treatment.5
Young Folks Are *Really” Struggling Right Now
Young folks are not doing so great. They’re trying harder than ever, and carrying the heavy weight of existential dread. Defined by the American Psychological Association as, “a profound, deep-seated psychic or spiritual condition of insecurity and despair in relation to the human condition and the meaning of life,” existential dread can be a tricky pain point to navigate.6

While there is much that is outside of our control, there are a few things we can begin practicing to relinquish ourselves from the grip of existential woe. Read on for my favorite insights I share with my clients.

Why Gen Z Is So Comfortable Talking About Their Mental Health
4 Therapist-Approved Ways to Deal With Existential Dread
If you’re dealing with intense uncertainty about the future and you’re completely freaking out—here are four coping strategies that I recommend.

Practice Mindfulness and Drop Into the Present Moment
I know, I know. You likely rolled your eyes the second you read my first tip. I take no offense and I don’t blame you. I’m sure you hear the term mindfulness gets thrown around a lot—especially on social media. But there is a reason for it—it works. Of course, it can certainly be difficult especially when dealing with a flurry of negative emotions.

Part of what can fuel existential dread is fixating on the past and future, which can lead to feeling like nothing will ever get better. When we come back to the present, we can feel those negative sensations subside.

A mindfulness practice is the best place to start when focusing on becoming more present in your daily life. Those who have a mindfulness practice tend to report lower anxiety and depression symptoms. They additionally are more likely to experience a sense of life purpose, which is a key antidote to existential dread.7

Mindfulness Sessions Don’t Need to Take Forever
Don’t be mistaken into thinking that the only way to shake your discomfort is to drop into an hour-long meditation. You can simply set aside three minutes every morning to breathe and check in with yourself with a body scan meditation.

How to Do a Body Scan Meditation

Sit or lay somewhere comfortable and check in with your body, head to toe, taking a deep breath as you notice how you feel in each body part. For example, you’d begin by focusing on any sensations you noticed in your forehead, around your eyes, in your cheekbones, and taking a deep breath.
Focus your attention on your shoulders, actively focusing on relaxing your back muscles while taking a deep inhale in and slowly exhaling out.
Repeat this with every part of your body until you reach your feet.
Take one final deep breath
How to Be More Present
Think About How the Content You Consume Makes You Feel
This first coping strategy is something I recommend to clients regardless of what they’re hoping to focus on in therapy. Checking the sources you receive your information from and curating your social media feed is incredibly important for boosting your mental health.

Take a look at the accounts you turn to most often. Are you relying on TikTok to get filled in about current events? If so, pay attention to how you feel when you watch content on that app. Notice where your mind tends to wander or if you feel discomfort in your body.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Do I feel overwhelmed?
Do I feel worse than I did before I opened the app?
Do I feel annoyed, frustrated, or sad?
Do I feel bad about myself?
If you answer yes to most or all of these questions, it may be time to scale back your time spent consuming this content and consider other sources to get your news from.

Stop Following Accounts That Don’t Make You Feel Good
It’s time to curate your social media feed. Scroll through your followers and unfollow or mute accounts that leave you feeling uneasy. This could be people from your hometown who gush about how well their life is going or gossipy accounts that focus on the worst traits of people. Don’t be precious with this process. Rather, be as discerning as possible.

The beauty of the mute button is no one has to know if you’re taking a break from their content.

The Social Media and Mental Health Connection
Be Real With the People Close to You
You may already speak about your sense of existential dread with your friends and family. That’s fantastic, if so. But, even if you do feel like you’re being open, I have a feeling you could be even more honest.

Something I’ve come to realize in my work is how devastatingly alone those in pain can feel. So, be real with those whom you feel safe with.

Don’t just shrug and say you’ve been better. Let them know about the worries you have for your future and the feelings of anguish that come up when you see others’ highlight reels. In doing so, you’ll realize you’re not alone—which can be a beautiful unburdening.

Take Action Where You Can
There’s much that is outside of our control. Honing in on what you can control may be the balm your soul needs right now.

Here are some small ways to make your community a better place:

Go to the grocery store to stock up on water and granola bars before passing them out to unhoused people in your area.
Consider volunteering at an organization that you believe is part of the solution our world needs.
If your existential dread is related to loneliness, try the following:

Sign up for a ceramics class
Attend a local event
Invite the new work hire out to lunch
As you take action over time, you’ll begin to feel empowered and inspired.

What This Means For You
The challenges we are collectively facing weren’t created by one person and won’t be fixed by one person. Change will be co-created. Remember this and take it as a reminder that it is OK to pause. It is OK to rest. As you lay down your sword, someone somewhere throughout this vast earth will pick it up to slay and spar the structures that threaten us. You’ll begin to notice, day by day, the dread evaporates.

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By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.

 

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