3 Systems for Coping With Existential Dread

Cari Nazeer
Published in
4 min readOct 20, 2020

Photo: Yagi Studio/Getty Images

A fact I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: People would rather give themselves electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts.

That was the takeaway of a study published a few years ago — or a few hundred, depending on how you measure — and treated, in a wave of headlines, with a sort of can-you-believe-it mixture of amusement and grim resignation. Haha, our brains are so broken.

I can absolutely believe it. Right now? I’d take the shocks, no question. Cutting down on doomscrolling is always a good idea, but even when you put down your phone and close out of all your problematic tabs, you’re still left with your own head. For a lot of us, it’s not a great place to be lately.

But while we may not be able to treat the cause of our existential dread, we can treat the symptom. When all this [gestures broadly] just feels like too much to take on, a system can help you organize, calm, and control your anxious thoughts. Here are three options to choose from.

The circle of concern: On Forge, Brain Pennie explains a tool he’s adopted from Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Picture two concentric circles (or grab a piece of paper and draw them, if you’re a visual person). The inner circle is your “circle of influence,” or all the things in your life that are within your control — what you do, what you read, what you say. The outer ring surrounding it is your “circle of concern,” or things outside your control, like other people’s reactions. The election results are in your circle of concern; your vote and volunteer efforts are in your circle of influence. The pandemic is in your circle of concern; wearing a mask is in your circle of influence.

These categories aren’t static, Pennie writes: “The circles shrink or expand depending on where we put our focus and effort. If we obsess over external events — the worldwide death toll or how the disease will impact the economy — our minds will go into overdrive, and we’ll only be expanding our circle of concern.” But the more mental effort you devote to the things in your circle of influence, the more in control you’ll actually be.

Cari Nazeer
Writer for

Former lead editor, Forge @ Medium