Examining the strangeness of life as a fundamental existential psychology stressor

“How strange it is to be anything at all.” ‐ from Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics

This is a piece that examines the idea that our awareness of, and anxiety about, the strangeness of our existence may be a key type of stressor, in existential psychology terms. This stressor might be considered to be situated alongside the four fundamental existential stressors (as categorized in Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, and in some other existential psychology works), which are:

  • Fear of death
  • Fear of isolation
  • Fear of freedom
  • Fear of meaninglessness

To be clear here: I’m not a psychologist. I’m interested in psychology (for example, I have a psychology podcast), and I’m pretty well read in existential psychology specifically. I’ve also had my own experiences with mental illness (which I talk about in some of my podcasts), which is a major reason why I’m interested in these topics.

But I just want to make clear that I’m not an expert. One of my reasons for putting these ideas out there is to see if they’ve been discussed elsewhere, so if you have seen these concepts discussed elsewhere in depth, I appreciate you letting me know (here’s my site’s contact form).

Before considering how a “life is strange” concept is a psychological stressor, let’s first examine why it can be seen as a valid observation. This could be examined in many ways, but here are a few aspects that hopefully give you an idea of what I’m talking about (even if you nitpick a few of these ideas or framings, hopefully the gist of the point comes through):

  • The physical world operates in ways that are non-intuitive and alien to our minds. For example, something strange must happen at the edges of the universe. Does it go on forever? Does spacetime bend? Whatever the explanation is will be alien and strange to our minds.
  • Similarly for the nature of time: there is something alien and non-intuitive with how it works: How can there be a beginning of time? How can there be an end of time?
  • Quantum physics research has shown us how reality behaves in ways that are counter-intuitive to human logic (e.g., the double slit experiment).
  • In order for there to be consciousness, our universe (at least our region of it) must be finely tuned in many ways (e.g., a world without gravity would never form things together). From a scientific perspective (leaving aside god/creator narratives), this would seem to suggest a universe with changeable, varying laws of physics (as discussed in multiverse theories, or in “the universe is a manifestation of math” ideas). It’s possible to imagine a universe that would not generate a large enough set of different physical laws necessary for the complexity of consciousness to arise (including a state of nothingness or near nothingness): when viewed through that lens, our existence can seem unlikely and bizarre.
  • In a universe made up of inorganic components, how did life arise? How unlikely is that exactly?
  • We tend to believe or feel that we have free will and control and yet we live in a physical world, where physical causes lead to physical effects. If we live in a physical world, how can there come to be an “I” that actually has control? (If you’re interested in this topic, I have a podcast episode about free will.)
  • The more you dig into the nature of your sense of “I”, the more illusory it can seem. For example: our internal thoughts largely come in the form of ideas or sentences that just pop into our minds unbidden, as if by magic. In what sense are my automatically generated thoughts “me”? Is there a “me” I’m not aware of and which I don’t have control over?

These are just a few ideas that hopefully make the point that there are many aspects of our existence that can be rationally categorized as “strange.”

To kick this off, a personal story might help to illustrate how such anxieties manifest. I dropped out of college in my sophomore year due to a so-called “nervous breakdown.” I had become increasingly anxious and dysfunctional and eventually reached the point where I felt like I was on the verge of losing my mind, or had maybe already lost my mind. I was fairly confident that I’d soon be living in a mental ward.

All the details aren’t that important for our discussion (if you’re curious, I talk about it a bit at the start of this podcast episode), but one interesting manifestation was a focus on the weirdness of existence. A few examples of how this showed up:

  • Before my breakdown, I had become obsessed with life being strange and what that meant. I was hanging out a lot in the school library reading books on Eastern philosophy and spirituality, specifically Buddhism and meditation and more obscure things like “contemplation of the horrible.” I was interested in reaching transcendence. I would tell myself that my awareness of the weirdness of the world was an indicator of my specialness, or wisdom. (This was in hindsight clearly due to me trying to compensate for how depressed and socially anxious I was.)
  • After I left college and was attempting recovery, everything appeared strange to me. Like someone who feels compelled to pick a scab, I felt compelled to keep questioning reality. For example, I’d be walking in a field and I’d wonder things like, “Why do we assume there’s earth and soil under our feet? For all I know there’s nothingness, an abyss.” No comforting assumptions about the world were taken for granted, and that was stressful.
  • During one of my worst episodes, when I was watching a movie, I suddenly saw the actors, and humans generally, as essentially talking monkeys: as strange creatures living on a rock floating in the middle of space who had somehow learned through trial and error to create vocalizations using vibrations from their mouths, similar to other creatures. This was not a purely intellectual realization, not a “that’s an interesting way to look at things” kind of thought, but it was a viscerally horrifying realization. It was a view of the world as alien, as seen for the first time. A view of humans as disturbing freaks, without the comforting underlying conceptual boundaries that we usually draw between animal and human. That was one of several times I felt close to having a psychotic break.

With my breakdown, it felt like the intellectual boundaries and categories that had previously protected me — those ideas of the world and the people around me and myself all being relatively simple and well understood concepts — all those boundaries were shattered or at least greatly tested. I lived for a while with a stark and painful realization of how strange and unreal and wild and terrifying the world really is.

The idea of life’s strangeness and how it can create stress is not a new idea: it has been widely talked about. Sartre and other existentialist thinkers have written passages about looking around and seeing the alienness of life, seeing the world through eyes that take nothing for granted, that see the world without aid of the comforting framings and narratives and assumptions that we previously had about our existence and the world.

And psychologists and psychology thinkers talk about this, too: for example, Jeffrey Abugal’s books about derealization and depersonalization talk about how people with derealization feelings can see and feel existence and their selves as strange and “off” in various ways, and can be focused on the strangeness of life.

Psychologist Kirk Schneider write about the experience of awe. In one interview, he referred to the “radical mystery of being. And one can be horrified by it and overwhelmed […] But you can also be fascinated with it and see it as awesome and not just horrifying and overwhelming.”

What interests me is in considering that this “strangeness” might be viewed as a fundamental aspect of existence and a fundamental source of existential fear, alongside the four fears often seen as key (e.g., as Yalom’s book Existential Psychotherapy categorized them):

  • Fear of death
  • Fear of isolation
  • Fear of freedom
  • Fear of meaninglessness
Great book by Irvin Yalom about the givens and stresses of existence.

If it were to be fit alongside these other core fears, it might be termed: a fear of life’s strangeness, or maybe a fear of life’s creepiness.

Some people might criticize the idea that this would be or should be considered a separate stressor; they might view the anxiety created by “life is strange” ideas as being included in one or more of the other types. Some thoughts on this:

Fear of freedom: the anxiety around our freedom is at the heart of existential philosophy. When we understand how free we are, and how much we are responsible for creating our own definitions and our reality, that can be a stressful realization, but also one that is necessary for us to mature and be fully human. An awareness of life’s strangeness could be seen to overlap with the awareness of our freedom: a realization that “we make the world” and that the comforting narratives we’d previously lived with don’t apply, is also somewhat an awareness about the strangeness of existence. But I’d argue that the two concepts can be separated:

  • We can imagine a person frozen by fear of one’s freedom, a fear of taking action and building one’s life and meaning, but yet who doesn’t dwell on the strangeness of the world.
  • We can imagine a person aware of the strangeness of the world (even in a positive way, which we’ll talk more about) without having much fear of freedom or fear of taking action.

Fear of meaninglessness: this is another one that “life is strange” awareness could be overlapped with, but I’d again argue that they could be separated:

  • We can imagine a person preoccupied by the apparent meaninglessness of life without necessarily being preoccupied with the strangeness of the world.
  • We can imagine someone preoccupied with the strangeness of the world while finding plenty of meaning in their life (as we’ll discuss, strangeness-awareness may even aid finding meaning).
  • In the case of my own mentally unwell period, I’d say that I was primarily terrified by the weirdness and creepiness of the world. I wouldn’t say that I was terrified by a sense of meaninglessness; in fact, I might have said the world seemed too meaningful.
  • One overlap may be with “absurdism” philosophy, but most absurdism writing that I’ve seen focuses not on actual aspects of existence that are strange, but more on the universe being meaningless and chaotic.

Fear of isolation: this is another one that “life is strange” awareness could be seen as connected to. The more you perceive existence as strange and the more your perceptions of life drift away from the perceptions of the people around you, the more isolated you will be. Similar to the points I’ve made above, I’d argue these things aren’t directly connected and can be separated, but I do think that a sense of isolation is the main way that “life is strange” awareness can become painful and maddening.

I think a consideration of a “life is strange”-awareness as a separate existential stressor opens up an interesting line of enquiry, and I’ll look at some of the implications below. (And again, it wouldn’t surprise me if this has been examined by people; I just haven’t seen it.)

I’d argue that the perception that “life is strange” can be seen as the source of some religious feelings. I’d posit that some of the religious epiphanies that people are capable of, especially the more emotional and stressful ones, are similar in some ways to my nervous breakdown: similar in the sense that both might be seen to involve a realization of how strange and inexplicable the world is.

Such visceral realizations of the world’s strangeness can push us in different directions: for example, they might push some people towards depression or even madness. For others, those feelings of existential pain (or even just being in a state of awe and amazement that doesn’t lend itself to normal day-to-day functioning) might pressure them to produce an explanation that serves to resolve those intense feelings: that God exists or that a specific religion is real, that their abnormal, emotional train of thought was a sign that they were having a religious epiphany.

Hopefully it’s clear here that I’m not denigrating religious belief. I think that realizing the strangeness of existence can lead one, in a rational way, to believe in a higher power, or at least to believe that such things aren’t out of the realm of possibility. And the fact that there can be emotionally neutral or even positive aspects about “life is strange” awareness maybe helps make the case that it can be viewed as its own concept or dimension, as separate from other existential stressors.

Examining “life is strange” as its own type of stressor can perhaps help us make sense of some people’s experiences after trauma. For example, when people experience traumatic things, they’ll often report the world feeling “unreal” afterwards. There can be elements of derealization.

And why does that happen? One explanation is that that person’s view about the world and their place in it has been shaken: they have suddenly been forced to come face to face with some core existential stressors, such as fear of death, or fear of meaninglessness (“if such a thing can happen to people, how can life be meaningful?”), or fear of freedom (“if such a thing can happen to people, I have to be even more responsible for myself than I realized”).

And I’d argue that trauma, especially traumas that happen suddenly, can force someone to come face-to-face with the fact that “life is strange.” One can have various experiential conceptions of the world as being relatively simple, as relatively orderly, as relatively safe. These can be under-the-hood conceptions and narratives about the world that were built up since childhood, conceptions of the world as being mostly coherent and fair (e.g., “I know horrible things are possible, but I don’t really feel they’d really happen to me” kinds of framings), that were never before tested in a major way. And when trauma happens, these conceptions of the world can be broken. One may be forced to see the world as it really is: wild and chaotic and awe-inspiring, and also terrifying from certain angles. (I’d say that some covid-related psychological impacts could fall under this umbrella.)

These might be aspects of life that someone intellectually is aware of beforehand but that were not really viscerally felt or experienced as true until the trauma occurred. This might be seen as related to the “there are no atheists in foxholes” saying: being put in an abnormal, existentially stressful situation can change a person’s way of experiencing the world drastically, in ways that it’s hard to foresee. Before my nervous breakdown, I would have been capable of calmly and intellectually discussing the idea that humans were talking monkeys and similar ideas, but it’s unlikely the true existential weirdness of those ideas or of life itself would have affected me in a visceral way as it did later.

If such factors are a part of trauma effects, in order to heal, people negatively impacted by trauma will have to come to terms with these ideas (and other existential truths) in some way. And theoretically that healing may involve religious belief as a way to channel and make sense of such feelings. Or else it might involve reaching a personal philosophy that makes sense of those existential concepts. Or maybe it might involve self-medicating with drugs or alcohol to mask that pain. Or maybe it will involve forms of mental dysfunction that function as ways of coping with and avoiding that pain.

I think it’s possible for “life is strange” stressors to be present even for people who don’t consciously think much about these topics. I think most people have an intuitive sense of how strange the world is (e.g., the fundamental weirdness of space and time) and how there are anxiety-producing threats lurking in those waters, even while those stresses may be largely unexamined consciously.

There could be a relationship between one’s perception that life is strange and one’s likelihood to be psychotic or delusional.

For one thing, when one sees the world or one’s existence as strange, other strange explanations and theories can come to seem more plausible. When one looks around and perceives a wild world full of inexplicable and unlikely people and things, there is less internal demand for things to abide by logic and cause-and-effect. All things, of all sorts, start to seem more possible, more plausible. Some people, in realizing life’s mystery and strangeness, are more likely to believe in unscientific, non-evidence-based ideas like astrology or the healing power of crystals; perhaps some delusional and psychotic ideations could be seen as related to the same lowered demand for or expectation of coherence.

For another thing, the more strange one perceives one’s environment to be, the more likely it may seem that there is something planned and unnatural about that environment. This may be a factor in making people more likely to have, for example, the Truman Show delusion, or other delusions that involve aspects of one’s world, or the people in it, being artificial or constructed, or involving people or forces manipulating one’s life. Such delusions can be seen as a way to make sense of a world that seems too inexplicable and improbable and downright strange for it to have natural, organic origins.

For someone who is not feeling well emotionally, perception of their world being strange can lead them down various dysfunctional and deluded ways of thinking about and perceiving the world.

What’s the practically useful takeaway from these ideas? I think that for people who seem to be suffering from these sorts of thoughts (even if it’s just a realization that the world is now scarier and more confusing than it was, and this might include some psychotic, schizophrenic-diagnosed people), there may be practical value in talking about the fact that the world is fundamentally strange, in the same way it can be helpful to talk about the other existential fears.

In Yalom’s “Existential Psychotherapy,” he talked about how therapists are often strangely hesitant to talk about existential ideas (I’ve encountered that with therapists I’ve had). Therapists seem to often have concerns that talking about such open-ended and unsolvable challenges won’t help a patient, or might actually make things worse (and of course that may be true for some fragile people). But proponents of existential therapy would say that these are often the important things we could be talking about, and other forms of therapy may be helpful but may often be fairly superficial if they’re not tackling these more primary stresses.

And I believe that discussion of the “life is strange” idea could be useful in therapy, if it’s perceived that these kinds of ideations and perceptions may be a factor in someone’s emotional pain. There can be a big value, a calming sense of relief, to being able to put words to these kinds of fears, to know that one is not alone in thinking such things. That is the value of existential psychology ideas. When I think back to my own troubles as a young man, I do believe that if someone had talked to me about the specific existential fears and terrors that were troubling me, it would have helped me a lot, and that belief is one reason I wanted to share these thoughts.

If you enjoyed this piece, I think you’d enjoy my psychology podcast People Who Read People. You can follow me on Twitter at @apokerplayer.

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Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).

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Zachary Elwood

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).