March 18, 2023: Looking into skills in Existential counseling: A 3-part series (By Sherritta Hughes, Ph.D., LPCACS)

Part I: Anxiety from an Existential Orientation

Reading on Existential Counseling and Psychology

A resource that may be used in existential counseling and therapies is Deurzen and Adams publication, Skills in Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy, 2nd Ed (van Deurzen & Adams, 2011). There may be an updated edition of this book. Further into this blog post are explorations of this book.

Another is the second edition of Rollo May’s Existential Psychology, which is edited by Rollo May, Gordon Allport, Herman Feifel, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers. This book is lends to greater understanding of the humanistic-existential approaches in action and thought, of the therapist, and within the therapeutic relationship (May, 1969). In subsequent blogs posts on this topic, I will share explorations and perspectives the explicate the keys of this book.

For those seeking to delve deeper into a multicultural sense of existential work (potentially) from a Latinx perspective, there is the book La Actitud Existencial En La Psicoterapia by Jose Felipe Gonalez-Pabon. I found this book while visiting Puerto Rico this past winter (January 2023). After translating and reading this book, I learned that there are many existential perspectives that are missing from what is taught in the classroom. In this resource, Dr. Gonzalez-Pabon situates ideas of existential psychology in comparison to the more Eurocentric/Western approaches if there are differences.

Objective of this Blog Post

Exploring the anxiety and the givens of existence: Gather ideas on an address of anxiety through an existential orientation.

Which anxiety is it?

Anxiety here is not being explored in terms of a clinical sense that may be read in the DSM. In the DSM anxiety is a set of diagnoses recognized within a category of disorders (i.e., Anxiety Disorders; DSM-5TR; APA, 2022). In this category the disorders are: Separation Anxiety, Selective Mutism, Specific Phobia, Situational Anxiety, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Anxiety due to that is induced by a substance or medication, due to a medical condition, Other, and Unspecified.

Anxiety in the clinical sense is thought of as having features of excessive fear and anxiety related to behavioral disturbances.

The excessive fear is defined as the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat. The anxiety is described as anticipation of future threat. While both of these states overlap, they also differ in terms of the fear being most often associated with “surges of autonomic arousal” that is experienced in or for fight or flight, thoughts of immediate danger, and escape behaviors; and anxiety is more commonly associated with muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for future danger and cautious or avoidance behaviors (p. 215; APA, 2022). In understanding this anxiety, be aware that it is outside of what is felt naturally to new, difficult, and different life situations that usually subsides after the encounter. When talking about anxiety from an existential orientation, it is meant as a concept that is more universal and a natural state of experience across the course of life.

In the following paragraphs are detailed descriptions and examples of existential anxiety, which again is not to be confused with clinical anxiety that lends to mental illness diagnostic criteria met.

Anxiety as a natural experience in and across life

In existential therapy, anxiety is considered normal to experience, one of the “givens of existence”. The givens are human conditions and circumstances that are unavoidable challenges that we all are thought to face. Also considered life conditions that we are “thrown” into, the givens are existentially what we are to face in life and are non-negotiable. For instance, death is a given because life ends from this perspective. Life is thought of as finite. As a given, we may tend to consider death in a way that is purposive, concerning, something to fear, or even ideologies to deal with it that lend to how to extend it. The latter is often thought of in terms of why religion exists. All religions have explanations of death that are relative to how to deal with it, what ways to live before it happens, and even subjective realities of what happens after it.

In essence, the givens are a what we confront as factors in our human experience. They are “realities that we cannot argue with or alter. This does not mean that one cannot try to change. According to van Deurzen and Adams (2016), such realities are genetic make-up, the family, gender, historical moment and culture we are born into. Anxiety and the givens of existence will surface in thought and possibly a wrestling with either or a combination of the realities that we are “thrown” into. Next, will be what this looks like, details of how it happens, and what counseling may help with.

Anxiety in this context is often synonymous with angst, ontological anxiety, or existential anxiety. As a theoretical concept, it is a life experience we face as a task that has associations with decisions about what we want, want to do, choose to think, and how to live. It is subjective and experiential that is relative to a philosophical thought and thinking, choices and decisions on how to live with a sense of freedom that is situated within a paradox centered on human issues or concerns. The experiences in this light are contributing aspects of this anxiety as it revolves around personal understanding, processing, and intentional commitment to the outcomes of choices and decisions about how to live and what it will take for follow through.

Essentially, we learn to live with this anxiety, appreciate, and understand it almost as a way to drive healthy existence. It is also about accepting what is and when not satisfied, doing something about it. Moreover, it is accepting the responsibility that comes with freedom to act on our will, use the power we do have, both without leaning in on aspects of where one is without and powerless. When there is a centering on the latter, which is a paradox of reality awareness, there may be manifestation of neurotic-type anxiety that contributes to clinical diagnoses of an anxiety disorder.

Often times persons with have the clinical anxiety live as though things are supposed to happen a certain way, have concrete thinking, struggle with not knowing, and think in terms of “or” as opposed to both/and. The clinical anxieties experiences

In the section of van Deurzen and Adams (2022) on living with paradox, they share that:

“Life in fact is given its excitement by this ambiguity and if we are able to take the paradoxes of existence in our stride and tolerate the anxiety that comes with the freedom of the both/and, we are more likely to live a satisfying life (p. 29).”

As an exploration of this quote, from Skills in Existential Counseling & Psychotherapy, there is suggestion that the unknown is a place in life that can be thought or even categorized as a dichotomy of security in uncertainty or anxiety in uncertainty. This may serve as the conceptualization of the ambiguity, whereby it is okay not to know and that not knowing gives way to the opportunity for several choices: live without deciding to know, live in search for meaning, and/or live with what being uncomfortable with what you know. In either of these decisions there is a sense of freedom below the surface.

The freedom is realizing that there are options, knowing what those options are, and intentionally choosing to do something with this life. In essence, how do you want your life to go, knowing what can and cannot be changed, while at the same time understanding that it will be both comfortable and uncomfortable, hurt and feel good, and so on.

What existential anxiety feels like

This anxiety is thought of as a natural part of life, it comes with living with your decisions, while also giving way to the opportunities to change your mind. You have the freedom to change your mind, do something different, decide what you want now, though it may be different from a previous decision.

From this freedom to change, the anxiety acts as a teacher, manifesting true desires, and meaning that is being made to shape one’s own life, grow from what it is being taught/learned about the self. Such lessons will help answer your own questions posed about life and how to live it (or how you’re not living).

Also, the anxiety acts as a tension whereby when life is lived, as though potential that is turned kinetic, purpose is achieved. When we choose to live out are potentials, moving through the what ifs, and as a responsibility to ourselves, we accept the realities of life, shaping into what we truly want, reducing the anxiety, becoming comfortable with the ambiguities.

So Now What?

  1. Increase personal awareness by begining to reflect
  2. What choices are you not making about your life?
  3. What are you avoiding in communications with others? Especially, those close to you?
  4. How does fear of the unknown impact your life in the present?
  5. What are your truths?
  6. What is your sense of reality in terms of meaning that you’ve shaped to understand yourself in uncomfortable situations?
  7. How are you experiencing life? Are you satisfied? How do you know?

Stay tuned to Part II, to be posed March 30, 2023