In terms of existential angst, generalized anxiety is a reaction to freedom and an inescapable recognition of not-knowing. It becomes apparent when we reject convention and question the beliefs and ideas we’ve previously taken for granted.
When we assume that what we know is fixed and representative of truth, why investigate, especially if our fixed knowledge seems to serve us well? If it isn’t, we feel unsettled, which means it’s time to look beneath the surface of our conclusions. Existential anxiety forces us to inquire; it sets in motion purifying shifts of awareness, which unveil a new kind of freedom.
In loneliness, the immediacy of our essential Aliveness seems as though it isn’t enough to put us at ease or to keep us grounded. Indeed, being in and bearing our own company can sometimes be intolerable or too close for comfort. We are closer to nothingness in solitude; we bring to light our otherwise shrouded mood of existential anxiety, which is related to fear but is not fear, per se. Whereas fear has a psychological or physical focus, existential anxiety has an existential focus (though existential anxiety may produce similar “stress” biochemicals as long-term exposure to physical or psychological danger). When we’re no longer alone, the fear inherent in loneliness may subside, but anxiety follows us, which is why we may sit with isolation in the company of others.
Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century “father of Christian existentialism,” sought to approach anxiety from the inside and described it as the “dizziness of freedom”. Existential anxiety, he suggested, occurs when we face the unknown coupled with the recognition of our own liberty, and so freedom tries to cling to finiteness to support itself (Kierkegaard and Hannay 2015). Kierkegaard saw anxiety not as a symptom of psychological ill health treatable with medication, but as a normal manifestation of human consciousness and freedom. We can think of existential anxiety as the non-psychological twin of fear. Whereas fear arises from living as a human in the world, anxiety stems from living as a human, which— let’s face it— can be pretty perplexing at times. Learning to become acquainted with this anxiety is an adventure.