Anxiety arises from one’s personal strivings to survive and to maintain and assert one’s being, and the feelings anxiety generates are an inevitable aspect of the human condition. Existential anxiety is the unavoidable result of being confronted with the “givens of existence”—death, freedom, choice, isolation, and meaninglessness (Vontress, 2008; Yalom, 1980). Existential anxiety can be a stimulus for growth. We experience this anxiety as we become increas- ingly aware of our freedom and the consequences of accepting or rejecting that freedom. In fact, when we make a decision that involves reconstruction of our life, the accompanying anxiety can be a signal that we are ready for personal change. If we learn to listen to the subtle messages of anxiety, we can dare to take the steps necessary to change the direction of our lives.
Existential therapists differentiate between normal and neurotic anxiety, and they see anxiety as a potential source of growth. Normal anxiety is an ap- propriate response to an event being faced. Further, this kind of anxiety does not have to be repressed, and it can be used as a motivation to change. Because we could not survive without some anxiety, it is not a therapeutic goal to elimi- nate normal anxiety. Neurotic anxiety, in contrast, is out of proportion to the situation. It is typically out of awareness, and it tends to immobilize the person. Being psychologically healthy entails living with as little neurotic anxiety as possible, while accepting and struggling with the unavoidable existential anxi- ety (normal anxiety) that is a part of living.
Many people who seek counseling want solutions that will enable them to eliminate anxiety. Although attempts to avoid anxiety by creating the illusion that there is security in life may help us cope with the unknown, we really know on some level that we are deceiving ourselves when we think we have found ﬁxed security. We can blunt anxiety by constricting our life and thus re- ducing choices. Opening up to new life, however, means opening up to anxiety. We pay a steep price when we short-circuit anxiety.
People who have the courage to face themselves are, nonetheless, fright- ened. I am convinced that those who are willing to live with their anxiety for a time are the ones who proﬁt from personal therapy. Those who ﬂee too quickly into comfortable patterns might experience a temporary relief but in the long run seem to experience the frustration of being stuck in old ways.
As people recognize the realities of their confrontation with pain and suf- fering, their need to struggle for survival, and their basic fallibility, anxiety sur- faces. Van Deurzen (1991) contends that an essential aim of existential therapy is not to make life seem easier or more comfortable but to encourage clients to recognize and deal with the sources of their insecurity and anxiety. Fac- ing existential anxiety involves viewing life as an adventure rather than hiding behind securities that seem to offer protection. As van Deurzen (1991) puts it, “We need to question and scrape away at the easy answers and expose our- selves to some of the anxiety that can bring us back to life in a real and deep way” (p. 46).
The existential therapist can help clients recognize that learning how to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty and how to live without props can be a nec- essary phase in the journey from dependence to autonomy. The therapist and client can explore the possibility that although breaking away from crippling patterns and building new lifestyles will be fraught with anxiety for a while, anxiety will diminish as the client experiences more satisfaction with newer ways of being. When a client becomes more self-conﬁdent, the anxiety that re- sults from an expectation of catastrophe will decrease.
The existentialist does not view death negatively but holds that awareness of death as a basic human condition gives signiﬁcance to living. A distinguishing human characteristic is the ability to grasp the reality of the future and the inevitability of death. It is necessary to think about death if we are to think sig- niﬁcantly about life. From Frankl’s perspective, death should not be considered a threat. Rather, death provides the motivation for us to live our lives fully and take advantage of each opportunity to do something meaningful (Gould, 1993). Rather than being frozen by the fear of death, death can be viewed as a positive force that enables us to live as fully as possible. Although the notion of death is a wake-up call, it is also something that we strive to avoid (Russell, 2007). If we defend ourselves against the reality of our eventual death, life becomes insipid and meaningless. But if we realize that we are mortal, we know that we do not have an eternity to complete our projects and that the present is crucial. Our awareness of death is the source of zest for life and creativity. Death and life are interdependent, and though physical death destroys us, the idea of death saves us (Yalom, 1980, 2003).
Yalom (2003) recommends that therapists talk directly to clients about the reality of death. He believes the fear of death percolates beneath the surface and haunts us throughout life. Death is a visitor in the therapeutic process, and Yalom believes that ignoring its presence sends the message that death is too overwhelming to explore. Confronting this fear can be the factor that helps us transform an inauthentic mode of living into a more authentic one (Yalom, 1980).
One focus in existential therapy is on exploring the degree to which clients are doing the things they value. Without being morbidly preoccupied by the ever-present threat of nonbeing, clients can develop a healthy awareness of death as a way to evaluate how well they are living and what changes they want
to make in their lives. Those who fear death also fear life. When we emotion- ally accept the reality of our eventual death, we realize more clearly that our actions do count, that we do have choices, and that we must accept the ultimate responsibility for how well we are living (Corey & Corey, 2006).
The Therapeutic Process