Do you feel an existential crisis brewing? Here are 3 ways to cope.

Don’t look now, but existential dread seems to be creeping into our lives, ready to wreak havoc on our mental health and well-being.

No doubt your social media feeds have documented this sense of hopelessness – and contributed to it – at a dizzying rate.

There is the looming threat of a brutally hot summer(opens in a new tab) partly due to climate change(opens in a new tab)the prospect of another mass shooting(opens in a new tab)continuing economic uncertainty(opens in a new tab) including last minute negotiations on raising the debt ceiling(opens in a new tab)and the fear that marginalized groups feel(opens in a new tab) as they become targets of attacks(opens in a new tab) based on their race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexuality, among other aspects of who they are.

Every crisis, whether we’re anticipating it or experiencing it, can lead to feelings like anger, helplessness, and anxiety. It’s easy to get stuck as these emotions dominate daily life.

But Dr. Luana Marques, author of the new book Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Turn Anxiety into Power(opens in a new tab)believes that if people persist through moments of fear and discomfort, they will become more capable on the other side.


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Marques, a psychotherapist and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, takes a well-known technique called cognitive behavioral therapy and distills it into easy-to-follow steps.

He described a short version of this approach in a conversation with Mashable about coping with existential dread:

1. Take a break to check your body, your feelings and your thoughts.

Life in the 21st century offers few moments for truly mindful breaks, thanks to the siren call of ever-present devices and digital connectivity. Yet Marques urges her patients to regularly stop what they’re doing to consider physical sensations, feelings and thoughts, which can make for an overwhelming combination.

Intentional pauses can be especially helpful when a social media swipe, with its seemingly constant drumbeat of bad news, sets off alarm bells in the brain.

Marques says the brain is designed to “protect and predict” at such rapid speed that it can sometimes mistake bad news or tragedy in the world for a personal life-or-death threat.

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In other words, a mass shooting thousands of miles away could lead someone to feel in immediate danger. This can start in the body, when blood pressure rises or the throat tightens, which causes anxiety or fear. In turn, those feelings can become certain thoughts like, “I know this will happen to me soon, too.”

While gun violence in the United States is a very real problem that legitimately makes millions feel less safe, the trick to dealing with the intense terror it can unleash is to be aware of that dynamic in the first place.

“Whatever is causing you discomfort, notice that discomfort, pause, and then really identify what you’re saying to yourself, how it’s making you feel, and what you want to do, before you do anything,” Marques says.

Further, Marques says people’s responses to these and similar events will depend on their own life experiences. Someone with a history of trauma, or someone who has survived gun violence, can have a very different reaction to a mass shooting than an individual without those experiences. But pausing to deal with individual emotions can offer a sense of control that struggling under the weight of them all at once would fail to provide.

2. Don’t avoid what you feel.

Whether or not someone has identified exactly what they feel, there is a constant temptation to respond to a perceived threat by avoiding discomfort. Indeed, writes Marques Bold move that without proper training “avoidance is a far more powerful force than any of us can handle.”

This is because the habitual avoidance of discomfort trains the brain to believe that the tactic is solely responsible for the relief. Avoidance can feel like a response to a perceived threat by reacting, retreating, or staying in ways that aren’t productive, Marques says.

Social media scrolling, for example, can be a way to retreat from the uncomfortable. This might seem counterintuitive in cases where increased news exposure would only lead to further distress, but social media can also generate tantrums, laughter, or unexpected connections that serve to distract from unpleasant situations.

Other forms of withdrawal may include putting off small tasks, exercising excessively, or grabbing a glass of wine. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these behaviors, but they can become problematic when they facilitate avoidance.

“Most people… when they start feeling anxious or uncomfortable, they jump into avoidance so quickly.”

– Dr. Luana Marques, author of “Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Anxiety into Power”

“Most people … when they start feeling anxious or uncomfortable, they jump into avoidance so quickly,” says Marques. “To see reality, we have to tolerate discomfort.”

Dealing with difficult feelings may seem difficult or impossible, but Marques adds that avoiding them only prolongs the painful experiences.

There is one important nuance to understand about this process, however. Understanding how to handle negative emotions should come up with healthy boundaries that are appropriate for someone’s unique situation.

“It’s very important to understand the limit for everyone’s brain,” Marques says.

If avoiding discomfort prevents someone from doing something that really matters or is deeply meaningful, then the tactic isn’t helpful. Think, for example, of limiting most travel to public places out of fear of a mass shooting, which could prevent someone from seeing close friends or pursuing hobbies.

But if the avoidance argument will only amplify the pain, like watching viral videos of gun violence victims, then it’s healthy to maintain boundaries.

“Pain is necessary, suffering is not necessary,” says Marques, paraphrasing a well-known Buddhist adage.


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3. Do the opposite of what the anxiety wants you to do.

Once someone has identified and acknowledged how their feelings have shaped their thoughts and effectively calmed their nervous system, Marques says they should do the opposite of what the anxiety is driving them to do.

Opposing action, challenging the impulse that comes with strong emotion, is critical to getting to the other side of discomfort. This could be as simple as trading a glass of wine for a five-minute meditation or walking around the block. It could also mean having a tough conversation that has been delayed because it signifies potential conflict.

Importantly, Marques recommends practicing this technique slowly and in lower-stakes situations. Attempting to use it for the first time in an extremely difficult situation, such as getting fired or being on the verge of an emotional breakdown, can backfire as the brain is not yet used to the technique.

When the source of anxiety is existential dread related to national or global events, Marques advises taking stock of the situation and then identifying specific actions under their control.

If climate change or gun violence are concerns, someone may be looking for ways to help make their community safer. When it comes to social media, shutting them down would be a healthy choice if it creates a refreshing break.

“At some point or another, we have to face reality,” says Marques. “We don’t have to love reality, but we have to understand where the world is and take a look at it. There is danger out there, but not everything is dangerous.”

If you are feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to someone. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Send “START” to the crisis text line to 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday-Friday 10am-10pm ET, or email [email protected](opens in a new tab). If you don’t like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline chat on in a new tab). Here is one list of international resources(opens in a new tab).

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