The COVID-19 pandemic has had incredibly devastating and often lasting impacts both globally and on an individual scale. For some, it has even provoked a sense of chaos, making it increasingly challenging to make sense of the world. Historically, philosophers have tried to answer questions about the meaning of life and what our purpose might be as human beings. Existential psychology, which is rooted in philosophy, allows individuals to explore themes such as freedom, responsibility, and the search for meaning. It encourages us to grapple with the concerns of existence, including the existential dread and angst- states of anguish, despair, and insecurity related to the central existential themes- which are part and parcel of the human experience. You may be familiar with the more common term, “existential crisis,” which can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety. Below, I outline the ways in which the pandemic can give rise to existential concerns and how we may overcome them:
Dealing with Loss and the Finitude of Life
For those who had not faced the loss of a loved one before, it is likely that the pandemic had you worrying about the health of someone you care about or even worse, grieving the loss of a loved one. At some point in our lives, we are forced to contend with the fact that our existence is finite. This can induce anxiety, as we think about the close bonds or attachments we do not want to let go of, the people we do not want to leave behind, and the limited time we have to see out our life goals. It is normal to be deeply affected by these experiences or even the mere idea of them. It is important that we allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of emotions that ensues from loss or anticipatory grief (feelings of grief associated with knowing that you are losing a loved one). In these difficult moments, there are unique opportunities to let people in our lives know how we feel about them and to help them understand the profound impact they have had on us. Furthermore, the pandemic has prompted us to reflect on what we value in life, which may lead us to alter our priorities. We can use these difficult experiences as a way to deepen our connections, reflect on who or what matters most to us, and to make significant changes that we may have been putting off, such as spending an hour less working in order to spend quality time with family.
Prior to the pandemic, many of us led eventful lives with little time to spare. Although the pandemic gave us the opportunity to press the pause button on life, it has also kept us apart from our loved ones: grandparents who were not able to spend time with beloved grandchildren, groups of friends no longer planning get-togethers, or travel restrictions preventing people from visiting family in different parts of the world. These are a few examples of how we could no longer connect with others in ways that we are accustomed to or perhaps even took for granted before the term social distancing was even part of our vocabulary. The positive side of this is that we may now have a greater appreciation for those who enrich our lives when we are lucky enough to spend time with them. During quarantine, we were able to bear witness to the interconnectedness we all crave and need, as video calls became part of our daily routines. The pandemic showed us how resourceful we can be when it comes to staying connected, as we learned to grow our online communities, become friendlier with our neighbors, and forged deeper bonds with coworkers who could relate to our hardships.
For those of us who thrive in structured environments and value stability, the year 2020 certainly took a toll on our well-being. Even for those who appreciate spontaneity, the overwhelming sense of unpredictability has been challenging to navigate. We have had to manage frequent changes in the way we perform our jobs or attend school, how we socialize with others, the way we travel, and the way we manage our health, to name a few. This has made it abundantly clear that change can happen when we least expect it, forcing us to adapt. Although this can make us feel uneasy, it is worthwhile to learn to deal with change, which is a constant in life. When things feel or are out of our control, what we can do is shift our focus to what we do have control over. This could translate to practicing a balanced routine where we provide ourselves with the structure we need, such as setting work hours if we are working remotely, eating healthier, setting aside time for physical activity, engaging in fulfilling activities or hobbies, and staying connected with others in some capacity. It is also critical that we practice acceptance, one of the many attitudes of mindfulness. We can do this by establishing some sort of breathing or meditation practice or with a positive affirmation, all of which can help us feel grounded despite the lack of certainty.
These unexpected and sudden changes have caused us to ask profound questions and perhaps compelled us to find the subjective meaning in our lives. Despite the vicissitudes of this pandemic, we can reflect on our growth and find the inadvertent improvements to our quality of life. If you are having difficulty doing so or want to further explore these existential concerns in a supportive therapeutic setting, seeking therapists who practice from a humanistic-existential framework may be beneficial. You may also want to read books that deal with existential topics, such as Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
Koole, Sander. (2010). Existential Psychology. 10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0329.
Price, M. (2011, November). Searching for meaning. Monitor on Psychology, 42(10).
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.