Have you ever felt the nameless dread?
Terror and anguish without a cause?
This essay gives a name and a careful description
to the nameless threat, our free-floating anxiety,
which we have all felt
but perhaps not faced.
First we must separate existential anxiety
from ordinary fears
as clearly as possible.
Then: How do we cope
And is it possible to live beyond angst?
I. FEAR & ANXIETY: FIVE DIFFERENCES
II. HOW EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY SHOWS ITSELF
III. ATTEMPTING TO COPE WITH EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY
IV. FREEDOM FROM ANGST?
The basic differences between simple
and existential anxiety:
FIVE DIMENSIONS OF SIMPLE
1. Psychological response to danger.
2. Caused by specific threats;
we know why we are
approaches from a certain quarter.
only while the danger is present;
might pass by.
4. Limited to the values
that can be reached by the threat.
5. We know how to cope with fear: fight or flight.
FIVE DIMENSIONS OF
1. Free-floating 'terror'.
2. No intelligible cause or source;
we don't know why we
'comes from' everywhere and nowhere.
does not pass away.
4. Pervades our whole being;
unlimited menace; touches everything.
5. Nothing we do will overcome anxiety;
psychological techniques are useless.
length 7.3 KB
James Leonard Park
I. FEAR & ANXIETY:
Fears have many causes.
Life is filled with worries, dangers, threats, & perils.
And we normally respond to ordinary problems appropriately.
But below the fears and dangers that we can
lies a deeper "worry without a cause"—existential
If we clarify our simple fears and worries, we might uncover angst.
There are five basic differences between them:
We become afraid when
something we value
is threatened by a specific object or possibility we can name
and whose destructive potential we understand.
anxiety pervades our whole being,
waiting for an unguarded moment to possess us entirely.
We prefer even a terrifying fear
of something we understand
to this uncaused, inexplicable, free-floating angst.
When we are anxious in the dark, we gladly turn on the light,
even tho this might reveal something that is actually threatening us.
Discovering "nothing to be afraid of" does not switch off anxiety;
it merely shows that our fears
which might increase our anxiety.
Nothing out-there-in-the-world is going to hurt us, but we still
To be afraid means that we understand that something we value
is threatened by some person, event, situation, or possibility.
If we experience groundless 'fears' or
if we don't know how 'the menace' is going to harm us,
perhaps we are feeling not fear but existential anxiety (angst).
We cannot find a specific threat approaching from a definite direction.
'The menace' is everywhere and nowhere; it stifles our breath.
We cannot flee this uncaused anxiety—unless
we flee from ourselves.
We can grasp fears
with our minds, but anxiety
grips us from within.
Most dangers are temporary;
The intensity of fear
increases as the danger approaches;
then it subsides as the danger recedes:
The truck might turn aside; the tumor might prove benign;
the rival lover might become less enticing.
anxiety is permanent;
not pass away
it arises from within ourselves,
not from situations in the world.
Our free-floating internal terror lurks continuously
just beneath the surface of life, waiting to take a good bite.
In genuine fear,
values are threatened.
Only some of the
things we value are in danger, while others remain
All fears (except dying) can be isolated to one dimension of life.
But our free-floating anxiety reaches further
it embraces more of our existence, touches all of life.
Often we try to isolate our anxiety by treating it as simple fear
attempting to find a cause or explanation for our terror.
arise from temporary threats to limited
sectors of our values;
but anxiety is a
total, comprehensive, all-embracing, permanent threat.
Every element of life is unspeakably brittle.
Our whole life is a snow-flake in a warm hand.
'The nothing' waits within to possess us entirely.
Whenever we are afraid,
we know what
Because the threat is limited (4 above), we have a safe place to stand.
Because the danger might pass (3), waiting might be the best response.
Because the danger approaches from a certain quarter (2),
we know which way to turn to meet the threat or to evade it.
And because we understand the psychology of fear (1),
we can react in ways appropriate to each specific danger.
But if the 'fear' cannot be cured, we
might be struggling with anxiety.
When we try to grasp this inexplicable terror, it slips thru our
We want to objectify our free-floating anxiety into a concrete fear.
In everyday experience, fear and anxiety are
often mixed together.
But now that we have outlined the differences between them,
we can ask how much of a 'fearful' experience is genuine fear
can be handled, corrected, overcome by appropriate methods—
and how much is our underlying free-floating anxiety.
II. HOW EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY
Our anxiety usually hides behind ordinary
fears and worries.
And we can detect anxiety by the ways it distorts and exaggerates
what would otherwise be psychological problems we could deal with:
Whatever reasonable fears and worries we might
can be exaggerated by
our existential anxiety.
Whenever we are terrified beyond what is explained by actual dangers,
we might be projecting our angst
onto external threats.
Our existential anxiety can also create
Are we pursued in the dark by impossible monsters?
Or do we have dreams of horror, danger, menace, threat?
Even in our waking hours, we might sometimes dream up
unlikely dangers to explain our anxiety to ourselves.
Our existential anxiety might also appear as
fear of the future.
Perhaps we do not focus on any particular danger in the future,
but the very openness of the
future might feel threatening.
III. ATTEMPTING TO COPE WITH
Because anxiety is such a common way to
experience our Malaise,
we have many ways of attempting to cope with it:
We attempt to transform it into fear by finding a 'cause'.
We develop complex psychological models to account for our anxiety.
We turn away from freedom and spirit; we desensitize ourselves.
We weave security blankets and construct dams against anxiety.
We claim that existential anxiety is a mistake or an illusion.
We create and enjoy order and beauty to cover our underlying anxiety.
We harness our existential anxiety as the driving force for our lives.
IV. FREEDOM FROM ANGST?
Existential peace is not a form of reduced
not unawareness resulting from tuning-out or covering-up our anxiety.
In fact, the same sensitivity that brought us awareness of anxiety
now informs us that we are free of our Existential Malaise.
Is the deepest tone of our being is peace rather than angst?
Are we transformed as a surprise, rather than an
If we have glimpsed Peace,
how would we describe our movements of spirit?
(1) Did we acknowledge our deep caughtness in angst?
(2) Did we give up our self-reliant attempts to cast off anxiety?
(3) Did we comprehensively re-orient our beings?
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What specific situations make you afraid?
2. Have your most significant fears changed as you get older?
3. Can you rank the worries of your life from least to greatest?
4. Have you felt free-floating anxiety—unconnected
with real dangers?
5. Have you sometimes confused ordinary fears with underlying
6. Do you notice that when you live more deeply, you are more
7. How do ordinary fears and existential anxiety interact in your
8. Have you tried to overcome anxiety by methods appropriate for
9. Have you noticed manifestations of existential anxiety in
10. Have you noticed exaggerated fears or phantom fears in yourself?
11. What are your favorite methods of coping with anxiety?
12. Have you ever tasted existential peace?
13. If you have experienced freedom from anxiety,
how did that come about?
10-7-2001, 10-13-2001; 4-20-2003; 5-30-2003; 6-23-2003;
2-4-2007; 10-2-2007; 5-23-2008; 8-15-2008; 3-25-2010; 6-18-2011;
2-1-2012; 5-11-2013; 8-14-2014; 2-26-2015; 4-10-2015;
essay has now become a chapter of Inward Suffering.
James Park is an existential philosopher
and author of five books in existential spirituality,
all of which will be found in the Existential Spirituality Bibliography:
The Existential Spirituality Bibliography
also reviews several books by Søren Kierkegaard,
most notably his book on the same theme: The Concept of Anxiety.
Much more information about James Park
will be found on his home page:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum:
FURTHER READING ON EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY
James Park Our Existential Predicament:
Anxiety, & Death
(Minneapolis, MN: www.existentialbooks.com, 2006—5th
Chapter 6 "Existential Anxiety: Angst" p. 89-150.
This chapter is also published as a separate book:
A complete listing of links relating to existential
will be found in the Angst Portal :