Viewing Illness Anxiety Through an Existential Lens

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Normalizing Health-Related Fears

Often, I work with clients who tell me they are having an “existential crisis.” My response is always the same: “No. You are thinking existentially. And that is not a crisis.” Thinking about existential concerns, such as death, meaning, illness, and aging is not only normal but can also help us to feel connected to the larger human experience. This certainly applies to common fears regarding our health.

Because our physical health and our possible acquisition of disease, illness, or injury are not wholly within our control, it is natural that we worry about them. Such is the case with anything out of our control; consider that more people fear flying (where someone else controls the vessel) than fear driving (where they control the vessel), though the statistics bear out that driving is significantly riskier. A sense of anxiety around our health and longevity is, to some extent, normal.

Finding Commonality

Humanistic and existential psychology help us to understand that many of our “hang-ups” or “neuroses” are shared by a large part of the population. The maxim that there is “strength in numbers” holds some truth: the less we feel alien in our ways of thinking or our anxieties, the more we feel validated and allowing of our feelings, even those that are uncomfortable. Concepts like fear of death, uncertainty about the meaning of life, and the existence of God, for instance, are shared by many people across generations, geographical areas, and cultures. So, too, are worries about our health. There is healing and safety in commonality.

Often, though, we fail to see physical health through this humanistic lens, labeling those who worry about their health as “neurotic.” Seeing these fears with compassion and empathy, we understand that the prospect of becoming ill is, in actuality, quite scary. Furthermore, the realization that we will someday cease to exist is uncomfortable.

There is a reason that Buddhist concepts such as “no death,” which teaches us to accept death as merely a continuation of life, remain popular today; humans have wondered and ruminated about such mysteries for centuries. Many of our great works of literature and art are responses to these unanswerable questions. If we can begin to shift our rigid view of these topics as “bad,” “taboo,” “neurotic,” or “verboten,” we might see our feelings of discomfort as more normal and less something to feel shame or humiliation about.

Connection Versus Alienation

In his book, Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom writes: “No matter how close each of us becomes to another, there remains a final, unbridgeable gap; each of us enters existence alone and must depart from it alone. The existential conflict is thus the tension between our awareness of our absolute isolation and our wish for contact, for protection, our wish to be part of a larger whole.” This “larger whole” can be found through an attempt to normalize the existential concerns, such as becoming ill, that connect us rather than to view them as isolative and alienating.

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