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When the COVID-19 Outbreak Increases Your Sense of Existential Dread

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Headlines might as well read, “Whelp, this has been fun. Goodbye, world!”

Right now, it’s pretty weird “out there,” and I guess, it’s pretty weird “in here,” too. Even writing about an “out there” and “in here” feels surreal and utterly bizarre for me — and I’m a therapist. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, confused, anxious, numb or doomed because suddenly you can’t leave your house and when you do try to run out because you’re on your last roll of toilet paper you find people outside walking their dogs in hazmat suits and there’s eerily no traffic (I’m in LA, so this one’s major), feelings of existential dread arising would make complete sense to me.

Allow me to affirm: it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling. There is no right or wrong way to handle your experience of, and reaction to, an unprecedented global pandemic. While I certainly don’t have a solution to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak — and my ego is 100% comfortable with leaving that to others who have dedicated their lives to understanding, studying, and learning how to help us with this one — what I am hoping is maybe I can use my understanding, and interpretation, of existentialism to give us one possible framework for considering why we might be feeling what we’re feeling and what we might be able to do about it.

As a therapist, one of the dominant lenses I look through is existential. While existentialism is loosely understood to be about death and our relationship to it — you might be relieved to learn that it’s not all doom and gloom. (Existentialism is not nihilism, which somewhat pessimistically posits existence is senseless and kind of leaves it there.) I appreciate existentialism because it actually promotes freedom, choice, authenticity, and personal responsibility. It’s not about throwing our hands up in the face of an illogical world; it’s about getting up and deciding to continue moving forward while acknowledging the absurdity and irrationality of it all. I find it liberating and exciting.

An obstacle on the path to liberation, however, is fear. It is natural and totally normal to feel afraid. Fear is an important survival mechanism. Without fear, the lion eats us, ya know? What I’m suggesting is not to numb out and avoid fear but to risk looking at it. While we may not have control over the circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment and we may not fully understand it all — maybe that’s OK and maybe we are actually still OK. Maybe in the face of this pandemic, there is a profound opportunity awaiting us on the other side of our fear…

During what I’ll call “the good old days” — you remember, when we could go out to eat, see movies in a theater, and gather in groups of ten or more people — the opportunity has always been there for us to ask some tough existential questions. Right now, we’re being confronted by the unknown answers to those tough questions more literally, and immediately, than ever before as we sit at home in our best effort to protect each other’s health and wellbeing. Questions like: Who am I? What am I? What is the point of it all? — which is another way of asking: What is the meaning of life? The Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Jung, shared a heartening quote that I think sums up this notion so elegantly: “Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.”

So is it possible that the meaning of life is to choose to live a life of deep meaning?!

I find there to be a poetic and liberating beauty in this idea — the notion that we get to construct our own meaning of, and about, everything! This is not about selfishness and narcissism, it is about self-actualization. Is it possible that there is not one finite “meaning of life” but rather that each of us gets to assign our meaning to our life? At its most distilled, I am suggesting that perhaps the greatest expression of purpose, meaning, and freedom in our lives — even and perhaps especially in times of uncertainty — is to continue courageously choosing each day to uncover, discover, and be who we are.

From my perspective, existential angst is an invitation to turn inward — to “go home” — to reconsider our spiritual freedom, to embrace the power we have to decide what we make of our experience and to engage with our personal responsibility. I wonder what happens if instead of putting our hands over our eyes right now, we decide to surrender to the unknown, lean into the moment, and dare to allow ourselves to bloom in the face of it all?

Short-term Existential Dread Coping Strategies

  • Breathe, and not those shallow chest breaths either! I’m talking about a deep, full belly, I am inhaling into my fingers and toes kind of breaths. It’s called diaphragmatic breathing, and it’s the way we breathe when we are relaxed, feeling safe and secure. Even if you’re not feeling that right now, let’s fake it and risk that by breathing in this way — we just might feel OK for a bit. It’s possible to trick our brains into a positive outcome sometimes — so why not try it? I suggest a long, slow inhale, holding the breath for about as long as it took for you to inhale, and then exhaling just as slowly.
  • Try to limit how much news you are taking in. Make a commitment to yourself to only read the news twice a day (or something that feels realistic/manageable for you).
  • Get some fresh air. If you can’t go outside — can you at least open a window to bring some fresh energy into your space?
  • Consider self-soothing with comedy! Watch a show you love, give yourself permission to feel lighthearted and playful.
  • Color or doodle your thoughts.
  • Make a list of things that delight you and intentionally do them! (A hot shower, a face mask, reading your favorite book, listening to your favorite album, snuggling up with your pet, wearing those cozy sweatpants… what else?!)
  • Move your body! There are so many incredible workouts and yoga classes available online.
  • Stop moving your body! Find guided meditations and body scans to help ground a wandering mind and comfort a racing heart.
  • Journal to get some of the “noise” out of your head.
  • Talk to a professional who is properly trained and equipped to help you.

I’m compelled to close out by highlighting the work of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist who founded logotherapy (“logos” = Greek for “reason”). Frankl was a Holocaust survivor of not just one concentration camp, but three. He wrote an incredibly poignant book called “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl’s observations and experiences affirm for us that life has meaning under all circumstances, including the most horrific and terrifying ones. He writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What are you going to choose today?

Resources and related articles about the coronavirus (COVID-19)

What Is COVID-19?

COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is a new-in-humans coronavirus that causes respiratory infection. The virus’s most common symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, and in severe cases, difficulty breathing and pneumonia. Other symptoms may include a loss of smell and taste or digestive issues. The coronavirus is highly contagious and is believed to spread to at least two people for every one person infected. Because it can take days for symptoms to appear, people can spread COVID-19 before they know they’re contagious.

Getty image by Grandfailure.

Originally published: March 25, 2020
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