Navigating Existential Distress in Recovery

Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach

What is the purpose of existence? What happens after death?

We live in a world with an abundance of unknowns. Nearly everyone will begin to question these unknowns at some point in life. Humans are meaning-makers. Finding meaning in life helps people relate better to others, understand themselves and reduce psychological distress.

However, there is no question that these unanswerable life questions can be overwhelming from time to time. Exposure to grief and loss, experiencing significant life transitions and receiving terminal diagnoses can bring about immense psychological distress. When people experience psychological turmoil when questioning personal identity or the experience of death, it is referred to as existential distress.

Many people who experience treatment for mental health or substance use disorders may feel existential distress. This experience may occur as they develop a willingness to change or try to find meaning behind their suffering. Despite our innate ability to wonder, how should we respond when these unanswerable wonders of the world become emotionally unmanageable? The answer lies in this very present moment.

How to Recognize Abnormal Existential Distress in Addiction Recovery

It is important to understand that experiencing existential distress is normal, especially after a crisis. In many cases, questioning one’s life is quite healthy and can help motivate individuals to identify deeper meaning in their life. Similarly, feelings of existential anxiety are also normal when experienced sparingly. However, when existential distress or anxiety occurs with great intensity or persistence, there is potential for these emotions to develop into an anxiety-related condition.

During an existential crisis, people may experience a range of emotions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Lack of energy and increased fatigue
  • Obsessive panic and worry

Again, there is less concern when these feelings crop up from time to time. When these emotions start to interfere with an individual’s ability to function normally in daily life, it should be taken as a cue to seek guidance and support from a mental health professional.

Treatment for Existential Distress in Addiction Recovery

If a person experiences existential distress while receiving addiction treatment, they are already connected to therapeutic staff and resources that can help them effectively address these feelings. If a person is not receiving treatment or is in long-term recovery, they are encouraged to connect with treatment centers that offer individual therapy, group therapy and counseling.

Many traditional psychotherapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, help patients address and overcome negative or intrusive thought patterns that may increase feelings of existential distress. Several other psychotherapy approaches can empower patients to find deeper meaning and purpose in their own life experiences rather than resisting the circumstances of reality. Treatment will motivate patients to make necessary changes to genuinely feel and believe that they live meaningful lives.

Individuals in addiction recovery are encouraged to take advantage of sober community resources to help them identify greater meaning both in their lives and in their recovery. They are expected to interact with peers in recovery, both inside and outside the treatment setting, to foster a deeper connection with others going through similar recovery challenges. Recovery helps patients recognize that they are not alone in any of their feelings or experiences, even when they may feel isolated or lonely during their recovery journey.

Tackling Existential Distress Outside of Treatment

Existential distress does not only happen inside of the treatment setting. When existential crises occur, it is crucial to understand that effective coping mechanisms can help keep you comfortable and safe in your environment.

  • Engage in self-discovery. For some, the idea of self-discovery may seem intimidating. However, self-exploration can help keep your mind focused on the present moment. Remind yourself of all the people, experiences and situations that made you who you are today. Dive into a deep reflection of the experiences that have made your life worthwhile. If you find yourself revisiting challenging experiences, try to make meaning out of them. If meaning-making is too difficult for specific instances, honor that you may not be ready to reflect on those experiences, but acknowledge that you will be ready someday.
  • Recognize that there aren’t answers to all of life’s questions. While you may find peace in seeking solutions to all of life’s wonders, understand that there are questions that just do not have answers. Instead of focusing on the big-picture questions, try to break questions down into smaller solutions.
  • Learn different perspectives from others. Different cultures, spiritualities, religions and general ways of life have unique answers to life’s big questions. Talking with family, friends, loved ones and peers about different existential purposes and perspectives can help you find peace with your own beliefs.
  • Focus On Gratitude. Gratitude is a factor of mindfulness that keeps individuals grounded in the present moment. When you experience fear or anxiety, take the time to immerse yourself in the experiences or with individuals who make life worth living. Set aside time to physically write down things you are grateful for and revisit your list whenever you feel distressed.

DiscoveryMD recognizes that existential distress is something that everyone is bound to experience at some point in their lives. During recovery, it is vital for patients to explore deeper meaning both in their recovery and life. This search can help patients commit their lives to sobriety and prevent future relapses. To learn more about navigating existential distress, contact us today.

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