"Empty heart disease" is caused by existential anxiety, experts say. Photo: IC
It has been over one year since Wang Su (pseudonym), a 28-year-old translator, started feeling like something was wrong with her inside. After she had resigned from a Fortune 500 company last year, she lost focus.
"I don't know what to do to improve, and I don't think learning languages and doing my current job is meaningful anymore. I don't want a job related to languages anymore," she said.
Since she has a lot of spare time on her hands after quitting, Wang often thinks about her life. She asks questions such as why she should continue living, and what use she has to her family and the society. She has not gotten an answer as yet.
She thought she was suffering from depression and went to the hospital, but was diagnosed with anxiety instead.
"The doctor told me that I am suffering from existential anxiety," she said. "A kind of minor anxiety which doesn't require medicine."
According to a November 19 report by news portal china.com.cn, Xu Kaiwen, a psychologist and psychiatrist at the Peking University Mental Health Education and Consulting Center, said over 30 percent of the university's first-year students, including postgraduate students, hate reading for a university degree and think it meaningless. Also, over 40 percent of the students think their lives are meaningless and have a difficulty finding direction in life.
Xu has named this phenomenon "empty heart disease." He claims that it is not depression but rather a new kind of mental disorder that is growing among Chinese youth.
Song Haidong, a psychiatrist at Beijing's No.7 People's Hospital, agreed with Xu. Song told Metropolitan that he believes most "empty heart disease" patients suffer from existential anxiety. He said that although minor existential anxiety is not considered a mental disorder and barely needs any treatment, it may get worse and trigger other psychological problems.
"There is an increasing number of existential anxiety cases, not only among university students but also among young white-collar workers," he said.
Song believes that the phenomenon and the rise in the number of cases are indicative of the sense of worry, dread or panic among today's youth when they contemplate questions such as "Who am I?" "What I am living for?" and "How to tell the difference between right and wrong?"
Young people should develop their own value system and learn to self-motivate to prevent existential anxiety and other more serious mental health disorders. Photo: IC
Searching for meaning
Although she has a PhD and has the potential to get a high-paying job in an international company, Wang chose to do freelance translation and interpretation from home.
"I feel that I could be more useful to society, but I don't know how to improve," Wang said.
Wang said her anxiety started shortly after she began university. In the beginning, she was at a loss and did not want to study. But her anxiety eased with time as she became increasingly occupied with studying and striving to graduate. The anxiety returned just before graduation - after she completed her studies.
"Two groups of people are more likely feel at a loss at university. One group is made up of those who just entered, and the other of those who are about to leave," she said. "Excelling in academics was a must for me. But after I completed my studies, I found myself once more at a loss about my future."
Song said the majority of the people who suffer from existential anxiety are elites. They are graduates of the best universities and employees at some of the top companies.
"These people received the best education and are kind of different from most of their peers, so they may think more and need more recognition and compliments," Song said. "Once they are confused about their life's path, they are more likely to panic and think about questions far beyond their capacity to solve."
Xu told china.com.cn that he often receives calls and messages from Peking University students who say they feel like killing themselves and that some of them even attempted suicide.
"This situation is not a sudden one. It can last for years, during which the negative emotions and confused feelings accumulate," Xu said. "The sufferers would keep thinking about the issue and keep getting lost in a mass, not knowing what to do and why they should continue to live. When these emotions get out of control, they may trigger suicidal thoughts."
Due to its slow build nature, existential anxiety is not considered a severe mental health problem if found early. Song said there are still many debates on the formal definition of existential anxiety in the medical sphere and that one of the ideas put forth suggests that this kind of anxiety is natural.
"Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? Who am I supposed to be? These types of questions are believed to cause a normal amount of anxiety," Song said.
He said it is also somewhat related to the depth of one's thoughts, but if it impairs one's ability to function or begins to cause emotional or physical pain, then it is necessary for people to receive medical treatment.
Xu said "empty heart disease" has its root in society and changing social norms.
"People's mental health problems are closely related to the society's development," he said.
According to Xu, the erosion of the society's value system means that some people have cultivated wrong values and can easily be led down the wrong life path.
He said nowadays many young people have thrown away noble values in exchange for extreme egoism, which is a sharply rising trend.
"Nowadays, people seem to think it's silly to 'fight for the country and contribute to society.' Even the age-old slogan of 'study well and get an all-round development' is empty for them," Xu told china.com.cn.
"Our society's common value is the ability to make money and get as much material wealth as possible, which has driven many people to the edge of madness."
According to the official website of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, in the 1980s and 1990s, fewer than two out of every 100 people had a mental disorder. The morbidity for anxiety during the same period was about one percent, but the rate jumped to 13 percent in 2016, higher than the global average of 11 percent.
The increase in the number of cases is in line with China's economic development and changes in how people value and perceive their lives, Song said.
He said since most young people are preoccupied with distorted values, such as the pursuit of excessive material wealth, some of them may become too competitive and aggressive or become withdrawn before suffering from severe anxiety.
According to a 2013 Huffington Post report, research done by the American Psychological Association found that while consumption has increased, happiness and well-being among many Americans have decreased. In fact, the report suggests that people's sense of well-being has been in decline since the 1950s.
"Compared with their grandparents, today's young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology," said the Huffington Post report, quoting an article by American social psychologist David G. Myers.
For Myers, the last 40 years of advancement in the US "has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being."
"There is an old Chinese saying, zhizu changle, which means contentment is happiness," said Song. "But it is a great pity that more and more young people don't know this and end up losing their way."
How to resolve the problem?
Song said the key to relieving existential anxiety is to make sure that people who suffer from this problem do not dwell on their past. Also, they have to learn to build their value system: come up with their own views about what they want out of their life, career, study and so on.
"Young people must learn to take full responsibility for their own future and never give up," Song said. "They should know that they have a right to make every decision about how they want to live their life and how to enjoy it. In other words, they can choose how they chart the course of their existence."
He said this realization is the ultimate goal of many types of psychological therapy, talk therapy, mental recovery methods, and treatment plans.
Wang said she consulted a few psychologists, and they all gave her the same response, which is not to think too much and create a plan for the future.
"I miss the days when I was busy preparing my PhD paper. I was fully self-motivated and was hopeful about life," she said. "Maybe I should find a job in another sector next year, start from scratch, not mind how much money I will make, and just enjoy my own existence."