by Sara A Showalter Van Tongeren
Yes, it is important to pay attention to the health effects of a pandemic, but as a therapist, I am more intrigued at the increasing mental health effects of a pandemic. Often, it has been said that the difference between humans and animals is our awareness of the reality that we humans will one day die. Depressing, panic-inducing, isn’t it? How quickly we want to avoid reading the rest of this article, eh?
This is exactly my point. Animals exist with the awareness of a feeling or instinct of an imminent threat. Humans have the unique ability to perceive that it has the potential to be a threat to our wellbeing and we can even imagine how it might feel. We can imagine what it would be like to be in isolation, we can visualize how we feel getting sick, or even worse, what it would be like to possibly be faced with our own death and the potential of a loss of a future. This is what makes us, well, so uniquely human. So why does this induce panic?
We need to understand that as humans, we collectively have four existential fears.1,2 First, we have the fear of groundlessness, which is defined as the loss of control and the burden of freedom. There are things that we can control, such as where we plan to travel, whether we wash our hands or cover our mouths, all while realizing that we do not ultimately have control over what happens to us—whether or not we follow all of the prevention measures. Life can be largely out of our control and this feels scary, especially because we like to think we have more control that what we actually do.
Our second existential fear is isolation, or the fear of being truly alone. This fear is the realization that each of us experiences our own life from our unique perspective alone. Even though we have close relationships, we are the only ones that know what it’s like to live out our life with our experiences. Although we share our experiences with those closest to us, no one will ever know our innermost workings. No one knows precisely what is to be me. Aside from me, no one knows who I actually am. And this terrifies us.
Third, we must wrestle with identity, or the understanding of who I am. Identity and isolation are intimately tied together: Loneliness is born out of this fear. People often isolate themselves because they are fearful that others will learn who they truly are and ultimately reject them. We fear rejection, so we change who we are to fit how we think others want to see us. We do this so that we can feel that we are accepted and loved. For example, we might have shared our concern about the pandemic and then been dismissed by others around us, or even been made the butt of a joke. This can challenge our ability to even begin to acknowledge who we are because we fear being known and ultimately rejected.
And finally, we fear death. It is in our nature to live, to strive and to create meaning out of this life. We are evolutionarily programmed for life (e.g., survival). When we are faced with the potential for our own demise, we are challenged with “what is the meaning of this life after all?” We realize that life is temporary and that we will all die; however, this realization shatters our assumptions, because we never really think that we would be the ones to be faced with death now.
The COVID-19 pandemic touches on each of these four existential themes. We must pay attention to each of these existential fears so that we can become familiar with them, rather than avoid them. Avoiding fear creates space for further panic, isolation, loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. If you are struggling to face your existential fears, contact a professional who can help support you through this process. It takes courage to acknowledge your existential fears—in fact, we do a lot to avoid them altogether. But so much can be gained by understanding our fears and engaging them, rather than running from them or numbing them. In the next post, I’ll examine the benefits of engaging our existential fears.