All humans suffer from existential anxiety, which essentially is the fear of death. Unlike pathological anxiety states, such as panic disorders, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, existential anxiety is part and parcel of the human condition – the price we pay for being alive. According to theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich, existential anxiety derives from three distinct types of threat: physical annihilation (death), moral condemnation (guilt, shame and social ostracism); and spiritual emptiness (meaninglessness and despair.)
In modern society, threats—real or imagined—to our physical existence and way of life abound. Near-instant access to a global network of formal and informal information channels exposes us to an endless litany of peril: Nuclear and biochemical warfare, terrorism, crime, climate change, racism, xenophobia, genocide, pandemic, corruption and nearly every permutation of barbaric human behavior imaginable are in our collective faces almost every second of every day. Additionally, the unyielding reality of financial insecurity, crumbling infrastructures and social unrest plagues all but the most fortunate among us, fueling an increasingly pervasive sense of helplessness, meaninglessness and despair. This widespread spiritual anxiety drives us toward systems that support tradition and authority and not those that promote expansiveness and growth. As our anxiety increases, our willingness to take risks, to open up to new experiences and ideas, to expand our beings physically, emotionally and spiritually, shrinks as we attempt to insulate ourselves from the source of the threat. In truth, however, the real source of our suffering is the inability to accept and integrate our anxiety into our existence and use it to foster autonomy and self-care.
Self-care—the acts and rituals involved in attending to our bodies, our homes, our finances and our values (things like integrity, autonomy and personal freedom) is the antidote to anxiety. As Robert Kuhry explains in his book “Authenticity,” care connects “that which is cared for with the one who cares.” Self-care, then, connects the person to the source of his anxiety and “unites what threatens to come apart.” When we acknowledge our anxiety and accept it, we are, in fact, driven towards self-care. On the other hand, when we run away from it or attempt to repress it, we fall into self-destructive behaviors in a futile attempt to escape what we fear.
Use your journal to explore the ways that you care for yourself and where you are letting yourself down. Start by taking this quiz, answering the questions as honestly as you can. When you are done, you will have a much clearer idea of where you are supporting your freedom and happiness and where you are falling short.
Next, take some and reflect on why you are choosing to abdicate responsibility in some areas of your life. What is standing in the way of you taking care of your needs? What’s holding you back?
As you begin to find your underlying anxieties**, use what you learn in your journaling, and watch as the ways in which you are committed to caring for yourself grow. To follow your progress, make a checklist of the items in the quiz that resonate most strongly with you, and add any others that you come up with on your own. Then use the checklist to watch your progress towards greater self-care, less anxiety and more personal growth.
**Lack of self-care always indicates underlying anxiety. It does not need to be, and probably isn’t, related to a real threat. More likely, it’s derived from an experience in your past or an incorrect belief about yourself and your worth.