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In 1844, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote: “Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way, has learnt the ultimate.”
I’m no Kierkegaard, but I think he may have been on to something. The anxiety we may be experiencing in these coronavirus times might be something that feels different, deeper, and beyond perhaps your usual fear or anxiety about day-to-day troubles. This feels more existential.
Existential usually means feelings of unease about meaning, choice, and freedom in life. Whatever you call it, the main concerns are the same: 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 may sound 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.
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, a significant birthday, experiencing a tragic or traumatic experience, having children, divorce or even marriage.
For existentialists, an existential crisis is considered to be a journey, a necessary experience and a complex phenomenon. It comes from an awareness of your own freedoms and how life will end for you one day. That journey may reveal to us that where there was structure and familiarity, now there is mystery, unfamiliarity, a sense of discomfort and a 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 us 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 in the way of a script to help us.
Strangely enough, this sense of existential anxiety could have become worse with the easing of restrictions and re-entry into some form of regular life. During lockdown, the structures provided by the government gave us some sense of certainty, at least in New Zealand and phrases like the “team of five million” helped people band together. Research shows that connecting, especially through collective action, can mitigate the impact of disasters on our mental health and sense of agency.
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.
But what if you didn’t have to solve this anxiety? Existentialists would argue that anxiety is an inevitable part of life that everyone will experience, so it isn’t something that we aim to eliminate, but it might be something we need to learn to live with instead.
Around the world, many people have found that the Covid-19 crisis has helped them realise what is truly 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.
In this way, an existential crisis might move you towards greater 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 life really about? 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. These are actually two sides of the same coin.
Because of this, each of us must find a way to “live with” this anxiety rather than try to eliminate it. Experiencing an existential crisis can also be positive; it can guide you to question your purpose in life and help provide direction.
There is no specific treatment for dealing with existential anxiety, but there are treatments that can be helpful. For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication can help to address symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that may accompany existential anxiety, including thoughts of suicide.
In the end, the process of learning to live with this existential anxiety should possibly be framed as adaptation rather than recovery. 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. Recovery implies that this will all be over at some fixed point in time and we can somehow make our way back to where we were before, in terms of our lifestyles, our goals and dreams, as well as broader aspects such as the economy and what it was focused on.
It’s clear that a lot of things will change as a result of this pandemic. It is also clear that the recovery will not be marked by a discrete event. More likely it will be a much messier adaptation. First, we must await the delivery of effective vaccines that have been proven to be both effective and safe. We will have to determine who gets priority access and iron out any inequities of access both between and within countries, as well as the inevitable ethical dilemmas that will arise, as well as both vaccine hesitancy and the deliberate spread of misinformation. From my work as Vaccine Policy Coordinator for the UK government during the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic of 2009–10, I know that all of this takes time and is a vigorously contested space, not always fought on facts.
Meanwhile, the virus will continue to travel across the world, and within communities, exploiting any gaps in protection measures. We don’t yet know how this will play out, but we can be certain of the uncertainty the pandemic will continue to create, and of our need to live with and adapt to it safely, while taking measures to protect both health and livelihoods.
Excerpt from Steady: A Guide to Better Mental Health Through and Beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic by Dr Sarb Johal.
Dr Sarb Johal is a clinical psychologist who, since 2009, has helped the New Zealand and UK governments, as well as the World Health Organization, develop psychosocial responses to some of the major crises of the last decade including the coronavirus pandemic.
Source: The Guardian
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