Existentialism and Mental Health

Unless you’ve taken a philosophy class, you may not be familiar with existentialism. In a
nutshell, it is the belief that humankind has free will: you have the ability to make conscious
choices. This school of thought has identified a number of themes that all people have in
common. It can be helpful to consider how these themes that are universal to the human
experience may be contributing to your mental health.


For those who are familiar with existentialism, death is often the first theme that comes to mind.
Every person is going to die one day, and the limited time you have in your life is a constant
truth regardless of your awareness of it. Oftentimes the death of a loved one, an illness, or a
traumatic event can remind you of how temporary your existence is. When you become aware
of this, it can lead to overwhelming anxiety or dramatic behavior changes.


Existentialism states that life is meaningless, and the meaning you find in it is up to you to
discover. Whatever your beliefs about the meaning of life, it can be helpful to consider your
purpose and reflect on what people or activities are meaningful to you. This does not have to be
a life full of volunteerism. It can be as simple as calling your grandmother once a week to check-
in, participating in a spiritual ritual, or sharing a story with a friend.


Autonomy is freedom to choose aka free will. You make many decisions every day, from what to
wear to what to eat for dinner to how you interact with someone. Each decision reflects your
liberty, that there are infinite possibilities for what each day of your life can look like, let alone
the trajectory of your life. Existentialism posits that each choice you make is a source of anxiety.
The more choices you can make, the more anxiety it brings. Imagine going to a super-retailer to
buy bread with an aisle full of options compared to a local dollar store that may have only three
options. If you’ve ever felt paralyzed by the smorgasbord of life and overwhelmed by what to do,
you’ve experienced existential anxiety.


One question related to human existence is “how am I different from others?” What is distinctly
unique about you? Exploring what it means to be yourself. Realize that no one else has ever
been you before or ever will be you again. You are the only you to ever exist. Perhaps you feel
an immense pressure to be unapologetically you, or you might struggle with compromising
yourself to please others. The idea of finding your true self and sharing that with the world is
authenticity. It can be a herculean task.


Finally, existentialism posits a paradox when it comes to relationships with others. You are
deeply made for and desire connection with others, to know others and be known by them. And
yet, no one can ever truly experience life as you do. No one else can feel your feelings or think
your thoughts. No matter how close you get with someone else, there is a level of separation
between your experience of life, your soul even, with that of others. You may struggle with a

sense of loneliness that persists despite having loving, meaningful relationships in your life.
Desiring deeper intimacy with others and coming up short is not uncommon.
For many, the above themes contribute to anxiety or existential dread. While the above
struggles are universal to the human experience, people can respond to them differently. One
person may be preoccupied with concern about death while another person may embrace living
life to the fullest. If you find your thoughts being overrun by the above themes or feeling
overwhelmed with the challenges of life, consider reaching out to a counselor for support.

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