Learning to Live With My Existential Anxiety...at 21 years old.

As human beings, I feel as though it's kind of in our nature to fear the unknown. In fact, if I were to ask the entirety of the world's population -

'who feels completely okay about dying?'

- I dare say the result would be very few people.

Of course, I'm not saying everybody is petrified of it. I've even met some people who kinda see it as a good thing, y'know, in a nothing-really-matters-so-i'm-gonna-do-this-thing-i-might-regret nihilist type of way. I've met others that are so sure of the afterlife, the concept of our existence being finite doesn't even cross their mind. And that's totally fine!

But the fact of the matter remains that no matter how many different belief systems there are, nobody really knows what happens when we die.

And it causes me so much distress.

Now, I will admit, I am a bit of a deep thinker in general, always looking at the bottom of the iceberg rather than the bit above water, and that’s okay.

But this goes above and beyond simply thinking about something, rather having my entire life consumed by it on several occasions. The worst part is, nobody can tell you that it's 'not as bad as you think'. Nobody can tell you that you're 'worrying over nothing'. It isn't nothing.

In fact, it's a pretty big something.

And, of course, it can't be changed. Everybody dies, Chloe. It's just life. I hear that one all of the time, as if I don't already know that. But, I guess behind the slightly(very!) insensitive approach of the comment, they are absolutely right. It's true.

The only way forward is accepting it, and that is one of the hardest challenges mentally that I have come to face in my mere 21 years of life so far.

But, I’m learning. Slowly.

Existentialism, as it pretty much says on the tin, is the philosophy of existence. It tackles the nature of who we are, why we are here, and whether there is any meaning at all to any of it.

I know. It's hideous.

Still, they're pretty important questions, right? And pretty interesting ones, too! I imagine everyone ponders them here and there, and for those that don't...congratulations.

*spoiler alert* - You get absolutely nowhere, every single time.

Yet I persist.

Not by choice, of course.

Around two years ago, I was diagnosed with a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder called Rumination OCD. I didn't know much about it at the time, but it essentially causes a person to spend an excessive amount of time worrying about and trying to understand or clarify a particular thought, often defined as intrusive.

I'll give you an example.

Everybody who knows me knows that I adore music. I write music, I play music, I constantly listen to music - it's at the core of everything I do, and it is responsible for making me feel so, so much.

When my own mortality dawns on me, it's like a sudden realisation that music is just noise. No matter how hard I try, and I really do, I can't get it out of my head that my favourite songs in the world are all just sounds layered on a computer. They lose all their meaning, magic, and genius. Suddenly, I can't do anything anymore.

I get a heaviness in my chest that feels like a 50kg weight on my heart, and I start to feel very trapped. I can't be around people, I become very restless and unsettled, and I often experience panic attacks. Of course, every situation is different; sometimes the feeling lasts a couple of hours, sometimes a couple of days. I had a recent spell that lasted over a month.

During that time, I struggled to maintain relationships with family and friends. I stopped writing music. I stopped exercising. I stopped looking forward to things. I stopped caring about anything. I stopped trying.

I just didn't see the point anymore.

I've included a little diagram below to try and present a very simplified version of what my thought process can be like, starting with the 'General Goal'.

As you can see, there are some...well...issues with my thinking. I want to find meaning in everything that I do, but my head keeps telling me my existence is futile, so I end up doing nothing at all. By doing nothing at all, I am having maximum downtime, which makes my existence feel even more futile, and so things seem even more pointless, so on and so forth. In other words, it's a vicious cycle, and it's going to take me a long time to break it fully.

But, the point is, it can be broken.

Recently, I've thought a lot about the things I invest my time and energy in, and I came up with a variety of things. Pursuing a "good" career. Ensuring people have a good opinion of me. Being who younger me thought I would be by now. Christ, let's not forget the fictional characters I pour my soul into (I'm saving that cracking topic for another day).

I guess what I realised, though, is that there was no investment being made into me. No investment in things that made me feel good about myself.

So, over the past week, I've tried to do exactly that. If I've felt up to working out, I have worked out. If I've felt up to writing a song, I've written a song. If I've felt up to making a website, I've made a bloody website.

Of course, some days, I've felt up to doing absolutely nothing. I've woken up with that dull ache in my chest, and something as small as taking a shower seems too pointless to entertain. That's the problem with the anxiety I experience - I can go to bed ready to take on the world, and then I can wake up feeling taken under by it.

And if you know what that feels like, then I cannot stress enough how incredibly important it is to let people know what you need to do for you.

I understand how selfish it can feel - cancelling on plans, talking about yourself, asking for space, or letting someone know that you need them. It's tough.

But nowhere near as tough as going through it on your own.

Because, at my lowest point, when I wasn't being honest about it, I didn't even think there was a 'me' to invest in anymore. I thought I had figured this whole 'life' thing out - isolating, meaningless, not made for someone like me.

And then I started talking to people. Close friends and family - some who totally got it, some who didn't have the foggiest what I was talking about. That's fine. It would be pretty horrendous if everyone was walking around in a constant state of existential dread - it's good that some people don't understand (as long as they don't pass judgement, of course).

But make sure they hear you out. Hey, you hear them out! Get their perspective, then ask someone else! Write it all down, talk to animals about it, talk to nature about it, talk to yourself about it. Just do not internalise it.

It's difficult, of course it is, especially when dealing with such huge questions. "Why am I here?" isn't something anybody can answer definitively overnight, if ever. But once you start doing the things you want to be here for, rather than trying to do what you, or others, think you should be here for, the you that you're truly meant to be will show up naturally.

Not all the time, not all at once. But you will definitely see that person taking shape. And that person is capable of pretty f*cking fantastic things.

All the love,

Chlo x


County Durham, United Kingdom

© 2020 this japanese crane - chloe nattrass.