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?"
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."