By the second half of December, I was starting to have a bad feeling about
2020 too 2022. It wasn’t just the rise of the Omicron variant and the fact that, suddenly, it seemed like everybody and their mother was testing positive for COVID-19 (though, luckily, many weren’t getting severely sick, due to being vaccinated). It also seemed like people were collectively at their worst, or that we were “slowly unraveling” — which is, not-so-coincidentally, the name one of my friends gave to our group chat sometime before Christmas.
My worries, of course, could have been much worse. I was safe, employed, sheltered. But I still felt a kind of mounting dread, and a sense that everything could disappear in an instant. And if it did, what would I have then? My thoughts circled my work and my relationships: Had I accomplished enough? Should I be using my platform as a writer to do more? Was I spending enough of my life with the people I cared about? Was my purpose to shine a light on injustice, as I thought it was? Was I even capable of doing that? Or was I wasting away hunched over my laptop? Should I use my time on this unstable planet to cultivate my friendships, memorize my parents' laughs, and find the best cupcake shop in New York City? What if I wake up one day 10 years from now and I'm totally unhappy?
When I shared my spiraling thoughts with my friends, many related. We all seemed to be in a similar funk, questioning our existences, careers, and relationships.
2022's rocky start wasn't solely to blame for the way we were feeling. Plenty of events over the past few years — the pandemic, repeated instances of racially motivated police violence, the insurrection, natural disasters related to climate change — have prompted people to think about their mortality, their worldview, and if they’re really happy with the monotony of their day-to-day life, says Steven Meyers, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. The sense of unease you might wrestle with while asking yourself those "big" questions ("What's the meaning of my life?" "How did I end up here?") is the hallmark of an existential crisis.
That's a big phrase, and frankly, existential anxiety is not a great feeling. It can preoccupy you with insecurities about the future. You might feel hopeless about the "point" of life, almost to the point of nihilism. Existential dilemmas are different from clinical anxiety or depression, but they can still make you feel anxious, unhappy, and lonely.
People often face these crises after a major life event, such as a death in the family, a scary health diagnosis, divorce, or the loss of a job, Dr. Meyers says. And these are things that millions of people have been through as a direct result of the "layers" of trauma we've experienced, collectively and individually, during the pandemic, says Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, a psychologist and founder of the AAKOMA Project, a mental health nonprofit. “It’s not just that all these bad things have happened, it’s the fact that they’ve happened continuously, plus the length of time they’ve been happening," she explains. "We were anticipating all of this would be over and it's not."
Since 2020, the constant threat of getting sick or losing our livelihoods has clung to us like a shadow. The gaps and harmful inequities in our social support systems have never been more glaring. Now, 2022 has kicked off with more than a million new COVID-19 cases being reported in the U.S. in the first week of January alone. It's no surprise that people, including myself, are focusing on the bleaker questions in life. If Hot Vax Summer turned into Sad Girl Autumn, maybe this is Existential Dread Winter.
While it was comforting to know that I'm not alone, I was also hoping there might be some way to put my spiraling fears to rest. To that end, Dr. Breland-Noble suggested using intervention techniques, which focus on finding ways to head off the thoughts circling in your mind before they snowball. A snowball gets bigger the longer you let it roll downhill, she explains. “If you can catch it at the top of the hill, or run and get in front of it when it's toward the top third of the hill, you have a better opportunity to manage it, to hold onto it, and to even shrink it," she says.
Although your instinct may be to push away these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, Dr. Breland-Noble suggests setting aside time to let yourself really feel them; you can even use a daily calendar alert or an app like Breethe (which Dr. Breland-Noble has worked with before and which she uses) to remind yourself to check in. “The more you give yourself an opportunity to take stock of what you’re feeling each day, the more you can attend to your feelings and the better you can manage them,” Dr. Breland-Noble explains. "I always tell people that feelings are our guide, so we want to use the feelings we have within an existential crisis to move us forward." (Prevention is more effective at managing your mental health than intervention, she adds, so keep up with these strategies even when you're feeling more balanced.)
Journaling can help you make sense of your emotions, says Dr. Meyers. “Troubling thoughts can be like a tennis ball in a dryer," he says. "They keep bouncing against the walls of the machine." In other words, we don’t typically think in linear terms, but writing things can help us clarify what we want, who we are, and, well, what life might mean to us.
Dr. Meyers adds that existential crises aren't always completely negative. While they're difficult and draining, they also tend to precede growth, by forcing people to assess where their lives are going and to ask themselves whether they want to make a change.
No one's required to turn an existential crisis into a productive moment. But if you find it helpful, Dr. Meyers suggests asking yourself if there are any small, purposeful actions that might help you feel more motivated and in control. If you're spending a lot of time dwelling on your job, for instance, consider beginning to build a "fuck you fund" that would allow you to take some time off if need be, signing up for a class that would let you build new skills, setting up a networking date with someone whose career path you admire, or just turning on the "actively seeking" setting on LinkedIn.
Professional help like therapy can be useful too — for everyone, all the time, but especially when you're wrestling with the bigger questions in life, and especially if you feel like your day-to-day routine is being disrupted by what you're going through, or if you've made positive life changes and still don’t feel better.
“Mental health services come in many shapes and sizes, and typically there’s some level of professional intervention that will be a good fit,” Dr. Meyers says. “Some therapists focus on actions, some focus on feelings, some focus on present-day struggles, some past, some are passive, some are active — the important thing is to find someone you feel in sync with who understands you. If the match isn’t there, the person should feel free to find a different option.”
The bottom line is, it's understandable to feel stuck and confused right now, especially because many of the factors contributing to our existential dread feel largely out of our control. So, as we move into 2022, Dr. Breland-Noble suggests focusing on what you can control. Consider restricting how much news you consume, try to spend any free time you might have on nourishing activities like going on walks, and talk to your friends or family. Heck, go find a great cupcake! And regardless of how you do choose to work your way through Existential Dread Winter, remember: There may be something better and more meaningful on the other side.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.