An examination of existential angst and existential threat from an existential perspective reveals that the two dynamics intercept each other at the common point of anxiety. How one chooses to respond to anxiety can have implications for peace-making and healing.
“Existential angst” and “existential threat.” What do these concepts mean and why are they increasingly used in discourse? An understanding of these concepts may shed light on what existential issues we are facing, and what choices we have as we address these phenomena.
According to the dictionary definition, the feeling of “existential angst” is a feeling of dread, impending doom, and anxiety that reaches nearly the levels of panic; a term used by the existentialists related to the human experience of freedom and responsibility (7), and by extrapolation, related to finding and actualizing meaning, more precisely, it refers to the sense of meaninglessness and the apparent lack of meaning (8).
The concept of “Existential threat” has been used by people to refer to their basic needs not being met, a threat to their very existence, when their continued being is at stake or in danger (1). A perception of “threat” involves a sense of impending harm to their being and often involves anxiety and vigilance to ward off the harm.
Let us examine these concepts in further detail to highlight some of their existential implications and correlates.
There are many forms of anxiety. Some types of anxiety are reasonable and justified. Anxiety is state and an emotional reaction that is associated with feelings, thoughts, and physiological reactions, among which we can list, increased sympathetic nervous system activity, higher heart rate and blood pressure. Release of adrenalin to prepare the body for flight or fight. This is an evolutional response serving the purpose of survival. Psychological states associated with anxiety include vigilance, hyper-arousal, scanning, anxious rumination, catastrophic thinking. In the absence of real or imagined threat, the thoughts usually subside, the thoughts calm, mental clarity returns along with normalizing of bodily states. Homeostasis and a state of rest returns. Only, in the condition of prolonged toxic stress, that is unbuffered by the mediating factors such as a source of safety, security and trust, the body’s resources are increasingly depleted and in the case of lack of capacity to obtain rest physically and mentally, the body’s capacities to reinstate a state of rest will be jeopardized. Increased physical reactivity along with emotional hyper-arousal and vigilance will interfere with rational thinking and reasoning (5).
When one is talking about “existential anxiety,” we are talking about the existential dimension of the person, with their dimensions of body, mind, and spirit. Spirit is that dimension in which existential dynamics takes place. It is a dynamic that orients a person toward meaning, values and ideals that during the course of their actions one reaches toward to actualize. According to Frankl, meaning is the main motivating force of a human being, the reason of our existence (2,3). When our will to meaning is frustrated, we feel empty inside, thus the expression “existential vacuum” (3). Long-lasting existential frustration can lead to a dreaded sense of an apparent lack of meaning and despair (2, 8). Existential angst is a normal reaction to the sense of lack of meaning and indicates the significance of meaning in our lives. With guidance, one can help a person find areas in which meaning can be found to alleviate the existential angst and re-establish healthy tension between being and meaning and meaning-seeking, where meaning is the pacemaker and guide of our being (2).
Conceptualized from an existentialist point of view, a feeling of existential vacuum leads to a sense of emptiness in the absence of the perception of meaning and values to actualize. Existential distress is brought about by value conflicts. Existential frustration is the sense of loss of values (2). Existential struggle is related to the trespassing and disregarding of one’s deeply held values (6). In existentialist framework, existential threat can be conceptualized as a perception of the jeopardy of what one is, and what one stands for, such as a threat to one’s values.
When existential frustration and angst persist, people can attempt to find meaning in areas that do not lead to meaning but are shortcuts to a feeling that a sense of meaning would result in: they pursue pleasure or power (2). But since these do not result in a lasting fulfillment, the pursuit increases the level of their intention and their anxiety. Hyper-attention to oneself and hyper-reflection fuels fears that are now related to the intended and demanded results, in the absence of which the experience of “existential threat” intensifies. This threat is perceived whenever one’s needs for security, safety and basic needs are not met, or one’s values are in jeopardy, and is experienced as a threat through one’s functions of survival (notice: not functions of purpose and meaning, but functions of survival).
There are cases of course, when one’s basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, esteem are not met. The existentiality of the person, the existential dimension in such instances would suggest that a person engages in problem solving, thinking, creative and cooperative values-based action. However, when a person’s entire existence is reduced to a capsule of an organism with body and mind and the spiritual aspirations have been denied or ignored, meeting needs may not proceed according to rational, reasonable, and reflective grounds. They will be pushed by instinct and drives, instead of pulled by what is meaningful to do to meet basic needs. A prolonger state of existential angst, whereby reflection on one’s actions and their consequences, reaching out to others and options, choices (self-transcendence and self-distancing) have been lost to an impulsive jerk response of stimulus and response. The existential angst that was there for a prolonged period, and ignored, has given space for a feeling of “existential threat” to sprout and to take over genuine existential concerns.
The existential threat will intensify when values are equated with what one has, rather than what one is. Furthermore, a sense of “jeopardy of values” will surface if one ignores one’s freedom of will choose to live one’s values in harmony with universal values, regardless of the conditions. Thus, without the realization that values can not be given or taken away from a person if they decide to remain true to them and live them in various circumstances, existential threat may become chronic and persistent.
Interaction between “Existential Angst” and “Existential Threat:”
In summary, “Existential threat” is an anxiety about the basic needs of a person not being met and beyond that, that their values are being in jeopardy, without reference to their existential self in search for meaning. When the “existential threat” is accompanied by angst, fear of fear produces a vicious cycle in which the more one attempts to fight the fear, the more intense it will become. Fear produces fear and the fear of fear keeps the person trapped in a highly emotionally charged state that interferes with rational problem solving, blocks the ability to listen access one’s inner resources and increases the frustration of the will to meaning, that remains unheard and unheeded. Blocking access to the freedom of will, ignoring one’s will to meaning, reducing oneself to the level of body and mind, desires, instincts and impulses, and emotions, feelings, and thoughts, leaves out the possibility to choose one’s values and responsibly live them, be guided by them. Therefore, a reductionistic and so called “value blind “ view of the self (and others) reinforces the existential threat and the existential angst.
How does one Break the Vicious Cycle of Anxiety?
How can one bear the grip of fear? One can no longer run from it; one needs to face it. Unless one does, the despair continues, and the vicious cycle pulls the person toward destruction. To face fears, one needs space. One needs to sit down with oneself and have a dialogue with oneself. If one cannot do it alone, one needs help. One needs to evaluate one’s actions. One needs to get in touch with one’s feelings, thoughts, and values. One needs to evaluate the consequences of the actions. One needs to be able to see oneself, as a being with body, mind, and spirit, between functions of survival and function of purpose. One needs to re-discover oneself as a person of worth, wit freedom and responsibility and the possibility to change oneself for the better. One needs to question the reality of one’s thinking when irrational and anxiety motivated, based on assumptions, past experiences or automatic conclusions that are exaggerated or overgeneralised, and result to increase suffering to the self and others. More so, one needs to re-connect with one’s inner self. The freedom of will, and the will to meaning, beyond the will to power and pleasure. One needs to assess and re-assess one’s values in light of universal human values. One needs to re-set oneself. One needs to accept one’s mistakes and assume responsibility for them. Effectuate change and growth. Mold oneself. Shape oneself. “Not to take every nonsense from oneself” (2). Discover the freedom and the responsibility to take a stand toward not only one’s circumstances, but one’s inner self: one’s fears and anxieties. Do not give into them. Do not let them be in control, Re-gain agency. Re-gain self-determination. Only the step in the “right” direction in the direction of meaning can bring about a gradual relief from the existential angst, reinforce a sense of trust and thus gradually ease the grip of existential threat.
Human relations involve body, mind, and spirit. Physical contact between people is often preceded by emotional connection, exchange of ideas though communication and an implicit or explicit dialogue about goals and values. One feels attracted to people with who one shares similar interests, can share ideas, or have similar goals. One shows open mind, benevolence, and tolerance toward diverse ideas. One shows respect for diversity of thought, ideas and perception of what others think what is meaningful to do in a situation. And this is rightly so, since meaning is always individually given, tailored to the situation and uniqueness of a person. But we know that meaning is not subjective. It is objective and it involves what is good for one and for the other (2). For such reason, one needs to rely on conscience to discern one’s course of action in accordance with values and universal values (2). “What is the best to do in a given situation?”
So, what happens is cases of conflict, where one person imposes on the other what they should do, how they should think, or live? There is a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe imposition, to the point that the other may feel that their will to meaning is not being heard or its dictates can not be fulfilled because of the amount of imposition. This will create tension. The tension can rise to the point of oppression. This can be manifested in words, gestures, and actions. In relationships, we call it abuse, and we recognize several forms of it: physical, psychological, sexual, emotional, spiritual, etc.
Abuse in all these cases presents the other party with suffering. The abuser suffers in their own way. However, instead of solving this suffering and choosing to respond to it by allowing oneself space, determining their response so that they do not harm the other, they may choose to impulsively lash out at the other, threaten the other, attack the other. In relationships, we call this to act aggressively.
What shall the other do? In partner relationships, one assesses the level and seriousness of the threat of aggression or the aggression once it occurred. One considers its history, its manifestation, its possible consequences. One tries to mediate, to negotiate, to find a common ground. However, with severe abuse in relationships, the one that cause the other serious emotional, mental, or spiritual pain, let alone physical pain, intervention is necessary. One does not counsel the abused party to return to the abuser. One does not counsel the abused party to physically fight back. One advises the abused partner to remove oneself from the situation until the other partner is committed to receiving help, accepts responsibility upon being confronted with their actions, and commits to change. Until the abuser learns how to tolerate their inner distress without lashing out, and how to resolve their issues about existential threat and angst within themselves, without harming someone else in the process, the distance needs to remain, lest to perpetuate the abusive cycle.
Concretely, when one witnesses abuse where one of the partners is beaten, and beaten to death, or likely to be beaten to death, one does not stand by. Moral duty and responsibility demand action. Vulnerable individuals need to be removed and protected. A safe space needs to be created between the abuser and the abused person and enforced so that the abuse does not go on. Sometimes, the police need to be alerted, the authorities need to get involved to restore justice and order need to be on the scene. This is the prerequisite of finding a space to re-build lives and achieve peace until the attacking party will assume responsibility, realize their freedom of will and responsibly mend their ways (if they decide to do that).
The same happens in conflict situations between nations. Each situation is different, and each nation has its own “face;” history, culture, and traditions. Mistakes can be made by individuals who bring an entire country into war against another one. We know that this is not a case of collective guilt (3). There are those who oppose to war but have no choice to live elsewhere and suffer the wrong actions of the leadership of their country. To the party that suffers the attack, we cannot say, “it’s your problem, we do not care.” We can not stand by passively because humanity is like a big family. What one does, affects everyone else.
We may say we want to work for peace, and we know how to get there. This ideal, the value of peace, needs to be upheld. However, when the conflict already happens, the fact is that peace has been disturbed. We need to be aware of this fact and face it. To bring peace, it is necessary to reflect and to think. Evaluate one’s values considering universal values. Re-align them if there is a misalignment and disharmony. Tolerate distress without lashing out, until meaning dawns.
It is necessary to have space to think. To create space between two warring parties until solutions can be worked out can be a part of building peace. This value is now actualized in a way that its optimally possible to live up to it, until the circumstances change, until there is a change of heart. It is a human pre-condition for gaining insights and to regain rational thinking to allow space to reflect.
We humans have a strong will. This will inherently helps to find meaning (functions of purpose) that ought to guide how we meet our needs (functions of survival). It can also be stronger than our will to power and will to pleasure to the point that we can accept sacrifices for the sake of the other, for the sake of living together in harmony.
Speaking of survival, survival would be meaningless if it was not for the sake of an ideal for which we are willing to lay down our lives and that is the source and purpose of our existence, the Reason of our being. When we find a strong reason to live, we can withstand frustrations, even if not all our needs are met. Or as Frankl quoted Nietzsche: “Whoever has a why can bear with nearly any how.” (3) It is this “why” and “what” is the most meaningful to do that is waiting for us to ponder in a crisis situation where space between stimulus and response allows to make a choice. This choice is meaningful only if it is the best option among those available, the best for us and for the others involved, since we are one human family.
Working for Peace:
A common goal, a common task– this is what will save humanity from extinction, and extinction not only because of needs not being met or values being in jeopardy but first, because of the self-destructive effect of rage and senseless and uncontrolled actions that follow from angst-motivation that follows from an un-reflected existence, where the will to meaning was not and cannot even be heard in the turmoil. “Existential angst” and “existential threat” require to be acknowledged and guided “toward” something and someone for whose sake we are willing to stop and think.
Peace requires to stop and think. To make space. Physical space away from the noise of battle. Mental and emotional, spiritual space for the voice of conscience (3). Space to listen, and space to discern. Space to heal. Space to get in touch with the inner strength to counter the “existential threat” and supplement it with answers to the existential angst. Search for what is meaningful (what is true, what spreads goodness and beauty), what builds up rather than destroys. Search for values in harmony with universal vales. The more a nation can have this space the more they can advance toward peace. –In a space as large as the heart.
The opposite of war as an aggressive act is a space in which value discernment can take place and where meaningful decisions can be made. When existential angst and existential threat are not equated with the person, but a distance can be gained from these states to find a response to them, without hurting or damaging another, victory has been won over dread. When a space is perceived between stimulus and response, the agency of the individual is can be called upon to decide in which direction they want to move. When the space is filled with meaning–the actualization of values in harmony with universal values–peace can freely flow.
Screaming “existential angst” and “existential threat” are sure signs that existential dynamics are at hand. To deny them and suppress them would deepen the cycle of anguish and despair. To face them and to respond to them squarely offers hope for a better life.
We can not deny the chance to the party needing inner space to let live, just like we cannot deny the right to life.
“Living itself means nothing than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to–and being responsible toward—life” (4)
Life is calling us. Are we listening?
- Dictionary.com (2019). “Existential threat” https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/existential-threat/
- Frankl, V. E. (2014). The Will to Meaning. New York, NY: Plume.
- Frankl, V E. (2014b). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Frankl, V. E. (2019). Yes to Life. In Spite of Everything. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Harvard University (2022). Toxic Stress. Center on the Developing Child. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/
- Marshall, E. & Marshall, M. (2021). Logotherapy and Existential Analysis for the Management of Moral Injury. Ottawa, Canada: Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy.
- Wikipedia.com (2018). “Angst.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angst
- Rankin, A. (2022). “What is Existential Angst?” https://www.infobloom.com/what-is-existential-angst.htm