Existential psychology looks at the underlying causes of anxiety and depression. Questions like Who am I? and Why am I here? surface periodically in our lives, causing what’s known as existential angst.
According to this theory, there are four givens, or parameters, of human experience. These include death, freedom, meaninglessness, and isolation. We will address the first issue in this article.
The fear of death is the most common fear underlying anxiety disorders. Some of us, for instance, are afraid of dying before we ever really learn to live. This echoes what Rollo May said, namely, that daily, on some level, we must face the fact that we are caught up in a dance of being, nonbeing, and forfeiting our being. This translates as our daily, sometimes moment-to-moment decisions to live fully while knowing we will eventually die, or the decision (likely unconscious) to sleep-walk through life knowing we will eventually die.
There is a continual life-and-death struggle deep within us. We want to live yet know we will die. We may react to the concept of death by embracing it, such as obsessing about it or neglecting proper self-care, or by denying it, such as engaging in death-defying activities or overemphasizing optimism.
However, the process of death awareness can lead to liberation. Death can be the act of releasing our grip on the persona, or false self, we have embraced in order to become our true self.
One common way we have of alleviating death anxiety is to believe that we are special. This can be seen, for example, in the death of a marriage that was intended to last a lifetime (divorce happens to other people, not to me) or in our response to a life-threatening disease like cancer (I never thought this would happen to me.)
A second way is to believe that there is an ultimate rescuer (e.g., when I go to sleep, God will come to take me home). Again, religious beliefs such as this are viewed as our attempts to avoid the anxiety-provoking reality of death.
So, how do we live a meaningful life if all we can look forward to is death? Actually, it is possible that the existential parameter of death propels us to find or create a sense of meaning for our life. We should take responsibility for creating quality of life, knowing that eventually we will die, but also knowing that we didn’t waste the opportunity to live.
We can choose belief systems (including the various religions) that support us in making our life worthwhile. We can choose to enjoy what life has to offer, yet hold it gently so we don’t suffocate it. We can embrace the beauty, the people, the opportunities, the life lessons, allowing them to enrich our life.
Death has the power to elicit great anxiety, yet the realization of death allows life to be lived more fully, more intensely, more authentically. Choose life, and death will take care of itself.
Article by Loral Lee Portenier
Certified Hypnotherapist, Expressive Arts Therapist, Transpersonal Life Coach, Loral Lee Portenier currently is working on her doctorate in psychology. She specializes in helping people live their dreams and make their lives a great place to be. Her passion is awakening women to their inner beauty, power and wisdom. Find resources and follow her blog at http://SacredDreamsCoaching.com