Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 35, No. 3, June 2006, pp. 303–310 (
Existential Anxiety in Adolescents: Prevalence, Structure,
Association with Psychological Symptoms
and Identity Development
Steven L. Berman,
Carl F. Weems,
and Timothy R. Stickle
Published online: 29 April 2006
Existential anxiety is hypothesized to be a core human issue in a great deal of theoretical and
philosophical writing. However, little is known about the emergence of these concerns and their
relation to emotional functioning in youth. The purpose of this study was to examine the phenomenon
of existential anxiety in a sample of adolescents. Data on existential concerns, identity development
and psychological symptoms were collected on a sample of 139 youth in grades 9–12. Results
indicated that existential anxiety concerns have a theoretically consistent factor structure, are common
among adolescents, and are associated with psychological symptoms, as well as identity issues.
Results are discussed with regard to the importance of existential concerns in the lives of youth and
the need for additional research.
KEY WORDS: existential anxiety; identity; adjustment.
Much has been written about existential anxiety,
which involves apprehension about the meaning of life
and death, and research is emerging pointing to the im-
portance of such concerns in the psychological well being
of individuals, yet little is known about the phenomenon
in adolescence. This is unfortunate since adolescence
is likely a time for the emergence of such concerns.
For example, Westenberg et al. (2001) and Warren and
Sroufe (2004) have presented models that suggest that by
adolescence, youth have the cognitive capacity for insight
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Central Florida. Re-
ceived PhD from Florida International University. Interests are identity
development including associated anxiety and distress, cross-national
comparisons, and the development of identity interventions. To whom
correspondence should be addressed at Psychology Department, Uni-
versity of Central Florida, 1200 W. International Speedway Blvd.,
Daytona Beach, Florida 32174; e-mail: email@example.com.
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of New Orleans. Re-
ceived PhD from Florida International University. Interests focus on
the developmental psychopathology of anxiety and depression.
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Vermont. Received
PhD from the University of Arizona. Interests include a range of topics
in developmental psychopathology, prevention, program evaluation,
and research methodology.
into mortality and broader world concerns that may give
rise to existential concerns. The purpose of this study was
to provide an initial examination of existential anxiety in
adolescents. In the following, the conceptual background
for understanding existential anxiety in adolescents is pre-
sented and relevant research is reviewed.
Existential anxiety is hypothesized to be a core hu-
man issue in a great deal of theoretical and philosophi-
cal writing (e.g., Kierkegaard, 1843/1954a, 1849/1954b;
Sartre, 1957; Tillich, 1952a,b; Yalom, 1975). Our concep-
tualization of existential anxiety draws primarily from the
work of Tillich (1952a) who provided an integrative view
of existential concerns. Tillich wrote extensively on these
topics; however, his view of existential anxiety is most
deﬁnitively articulated in his 1952a work The Courage to
Be. This text is thus used as the primary source for this pa-
per (also see Tillich, 1952b, 1961). Tillich (1952a) deﬁnes
existential anxiety around 3 related domains of apprehen-
sion. The ﬁrst domain is fate and death. Anxiety about fate
and death concerns the absolute threat to one’s being in
2006 Springer Science + Business Media, Inc.