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Concerns about the nature of existence and one’s place in the world are viewed as central to the human condition in a number of intellectual traditions. Contemplating existential issues is a normative part of human experience; however, for some individuals these thoughts may become a source of intense anxiety (Weems, Costa, Dehon, & Berman, 2004). Existential anxiety involves apprehension about the meaning of life and death. Exposure to natural disasters can be highly traumatic and can have a detrimental effect on youth mental health by threatening the satisfaction of basic human needs and goals.  Research in adults suggests that exposure to disasters may intensify existential anxiety (Scott & Weems, 2013). Youth trauma theorists have also commented on the existential implications of traumatic stress in that trauma can be “an assault to the self that involves a loss of personal integrity and control” (Kerig & Becker, 2010, p. 24).

Tillich (1952) describes three major domains of existential anxiety. Tillich’s first domain, anxiety about death and fate, includes the “ultimate” concern of human mortality, fear of death. Death anxiety describes our concern regarding the inevitable termination of our existence and Tillich considered this our most basic existential issue. Relatedly, anxiety about fate reflects conflict between an innate desire to know our destiny and the realization that our ultimate outcome is unknowable. Tillich’s second domain comprises concern about meaninglessness (anxiety about meaninglessness concerns the idea that life may ultimately be without value or purpose) and emptiness (anxiety related to a loss of confidence in specific beliefs). Tillich’s third and final domain includes concerns related to condemnation (concern about the quality of the life being or having been lived-that one’s life may not meet certain universal standards) and guilt (anxiety experienced when we worry that our behavior has not lived up to our own, personal, standards). One may be forced to confront these issues in the aftermath of near death experiences involving ourselves or those close to us (Scott & Weems, 2013; Weems et al., 2004). Adolescence may be a critical period in the development of normative existential concerns, but also a time when such concerns may become more problematic for some youth (Berman, Weems, & Stickle, 2006) and traumatic stress may exacerbate this for youth.

In a new study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, Weems and Colleagues examined these ideas about the role of traumatic stress in youth existential anxiety in a sample of 325 adolescents (99% minority students with a mean age = 15 years, SD = 1.05). The sample was residing in the Greater New Orleans area and were exposed to Hurricanes Katrina and/or Gustav.  Existential anxiety concerns were highly prevalent in the sample and were associated with higher levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression symptoms. Consistent with theoretical predictions, disaster exposure levels moderated the association between facets of existential anxiety and mental health symptoms - that is exposure to traumatic stress was associated with a stronger association between existential anxiety and mental health problems. These findings were consistent with the theory that level of disaster exposure may exacerbate the link between existential concerns and psychological symptoms. This is based on the premise that exposure to life threat (e.g., in a natural disaster) may increase the salience of existential concerns (Pyszczynski et al., 1999; Scott & Weems, 2013) thereby making normal existential concerns more problematic. Findings suggest that adolescents forced to confront their own mortality may be more preoccupied (in a negative way) with questions about the meaning of life and death than those who have not experienced such concerns.


Discussion Questions

  • The study is limited by the cross-sectional nature of the investigation and thus, longitudinal research is needed to clarify the developmental phenomenology of existential anxiety and its associations with emotional functioning over time. Would longitudinal show that adolescents have more existential concerns or would there simply be a stronger association between existential anxiety and mental health symptoms after trauma as compared to before exposure?
  • Drawing causal conclusions from the study is not warranted and so interpretation must be limited to associations as opposed to causes. What other variables may be responsible for these findings?
  • While the minority youth composition of this sample is a positive feature in that it extends the literature to a population that has been understudied, generalization to other youth is less clear from this sample. Would we expect differences from a predominantly white sample? 

Author Bio

Carl Weems, PhD received education From Florida State University, Florida International University, and Stanford University. Currently he is Professor and Chair in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University. His research has focused on developmental issues in the expression of emotion dysregulation as well as the assessment and treatment of emotional disorders, the role of brain development, brain function, and cognitive processing in emotional development and the effects of severe stress. 

Reference Article

Weems, C. F., Russell, J. D., Neill, E. L., Berman, S. L., & Scott, B. G. (2016). Existential Anxiety Among Adolescents Exposed to Disaster: Linkages Among Level of Exposure, PTSD, and Depression Symptoms. Journal of Traumatic Stress, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1002/jts.22128


Berman, S. L., Weems, C. F., & Stickle, T. R. (2006). Existential anxiety in adolescents: Prevalence, structure, association with psychological symptoms and identity development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence35(3), 285–292. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-006-9032-y

Kerig, P. K., & Becker, S. P. (2010). From internalizing to externalizing: Theoretical models of the processes linking PTSD to juvenile delinquency. In S. J. Egan (Ed.), Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Causes, symptoms and treatment (pp. 33–78). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.

Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1999). A dual-process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An extension of terror management theory. Psychological Review106(4), 835–845. http://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.106.4.835

Scott, B. G., & Weems, C. F. (2013). Natural disasters and existential concerns: A test of Tillich’s theory of existential anxiety. Journal of Humanistic Psychology53(1), 114–128. http://doi.org/10.1177/0022167812449190
Tillich, P. (1952). The courage to be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Weems, C. F., Costa, N. M., Dehon, C., & Berman, S. L. (2004). Paul Tillich’s theory of existential anxiety: A preliminary conceptual and empirical examination. Anxiety, Stress & Coping17(4), 383–399. http://doi.org/10.1080/10615800412331318616

Weems, C.F., Russell, J.D., Neill, E.L., Berman, S.L., & Scott, B.G. (in press).  Existential anxiety among adolescents exposed to disaster: Linkage with level of exposure and psychological symptoms. Journal of Traumatic Stress.