Existential Anxiety:

   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 with anxiety?
And is it possible to live beyond angst?


    1.  Description.
    2.  Cause.
    3.  Duration.
    4.  Scope.
    5.  Cure.




    The basic differences between simple fear and existential anxiety:


1. Psychological response to danger.

2. Caused by specific threats;
we know why we are afraid;
approaches from a certain quarter.

3. Temporary
lasts 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.


1. Free-floating 'terror'.

2. No intelligible cause or source;
we don't know why we are 'afraid';
'comes from' everywhere and nowhere.

ever-renewed inner state-of-being;
does not pass away.

4. Pervades our whole being;
unlimited menace; touches everything.

5. Nothing we do will overcome anxiety;
psychological techniques are useless.

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Existential Anxiety: Angst

by James Leonard Park


     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 easily understand
lies a deeper "worry without a cause"
existential anxiety.
If we clarify our simple fears and worries, we might uncover angst.
There are five basic differences between them:

    1. Description.  We become afraid when something we value
is threatened by a specific object or possibility we can name
and whose destructive potential we understand.

    Existential 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 were groundless,
which might increase our anxiety.
Nothing out-there-in-the-world is going to hurt us, but we still tremble.

    2. Cause.  Fears always arise from specific dangers.
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 unintelligible 'worries',
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.

    3. Duration.  Most dangers are temporary; they pass by.
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.

     But existential anxiety is permanent; it does not pass away
because 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.

    4. Scope.  In genuine fear, specific, limited values are threatened.
Only some of the things we value are in danger, while others remain safe.
All fears (except dying) can be isolated to one dimension of life.

     But our free-floating anxiety reaches further than fear;
it embraces more of our existence, touches all of life.
Often we try to isolate our anxiety by treating it as simple fear
by attempting to find a cause or explanation for our terror.

    Fears 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.

    5. Cure.  Whenever we are afraid, we know what to do.
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 fingers.
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
which can be handled, corrected, overcome by appropriate methods
and how much is our underlying free-floating 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 have
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 phantom fears:
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.


     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.


     Existential peace is not a form of reduced consciousness,
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 achievement?
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?


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 anxiety?

6.  Do you notice that when you live more deeply, you are more anxious?

7.  How do ordinary fears and existential anxiety interact in your life?

8.  Have you tried to overcome anxiety by methods appropriate for fear?

9.  Have you noticed manifestations of existential anxiety in others?

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?

Revised 9-30-2001, 10-7-2001, 10-13-2001; 4-20-2003; 5-30-2003; 6-23-2003;
10-26-2006; 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;

This 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:


    James Park  Our Existential Predicament:
Loneliness, Depression, Anxiety, & Death
(Minneapolis, MN: www.existentialbooks.com, 2006
5th edition)
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 anxiety
will be found in the Angst Portal :

Go to other secular sermons by James Park ,
organized into 10 subject-areas.


Read other free books on the Internet.

Go to the Existential Spirituality index page.

Go to the opening page for this website:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum .


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.