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The meaning of life is one of the world’s greatest mysteries and also a unique and intimate experience for each of us.
It’s natural to question it and to want to dig deeper.
In fact, existential thoughts and questions are something that almost everyone has faced at some point in time: Am I my soul or my body? What’s the true meaning of life? What’s my life purpose?
But when these thoughts become intrusive and you find yourself overwhelmed with unanswerable questions, despair and dread might get a hold of you. This is what some people call an existential crisis.
An existential crisis or existential dread can be described as persistent negative feelings and emotions linked to wondering about the inherent meaning of life.
The phrase comes from a school of philosophy known as existentialism. It focuses on exploring the meaning of human existence and creating your own purpose in a world that often feels purposeless.
On the other hand, a crisis is considered an emotional and psychological reaction to a perceived or real life event. This reaction may make coping and everyday functioning a challenge.
An existential crisis may result from intense feelings of despair as you consider questions like, “What is the point?” or “Why does any of this matter?”
Those strong emotions can increase when your questions remain unanswerable. This may cause you to feel angry, helpless, anxious, or depressed.
Although it may lead you to experience symptoms of depression, an existential crisis isn’t the same as an existential depression.
Existential dread isn’t considered a formal diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean what you’re feeling isn’t real or should be ignored.
While it may not yet be included in a diagnostic manual, an existential crisis is a recognized state of mind both researched and studied in clinical settings.
Sometimes, existential crises can have a positive effect. You may discover questioning life leads you down new paths or motivates you to make important life changes.
Existential dread can sometimes overlap with symptoms of certain mental health conditions, but it’s not a formal diagnosis. Some of these conditions include:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- borderline personality disorder
Anybody can have an existential crisis during their lifetime. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re living with a mental health condition or will at some point.
Questions about life and existence may arise at any time without any apparent reason. But in many instances, these thoughts are related to important life events, like the loss of a loved one or unemployment.
Age may influence the type of existential dread you experience.
When you’re a teen, for example, you may find yourself constantly worried about your life path and career choice. This type of existential questioning is often referred to as a sophomore crisis. This is a type of existential crisis.
An adult existential crisis, which can occur when you’re in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, may have more of a focus on what choices you’re currently making or opportunities you may have missed.
If you’re over the age of 50, you may be experiencing later existential dread and your focus may be on things you didn’t do, the possibility of death, spiritual paths, or chronic illness.
Questioning the meaning of life, your life purpose, and the universe doesn’t mean you’re having an existential crisis.
When feelings about these questions start to dominate or impact your day-to-day life, however, you may have shifted toward existential dread.
When paired with pervasive thoughts about life’s unanswered questions, signs of existential crisis may include:
- rising levels of anxiety, including unexpected panic attacks
- constant irritability and skepticism
- symptoms of clinical depression
- unexplained fear
- feelings of loneliness and emptiness
- lack of motivation to work or take care of yourself
- a sense of negative self-worth
- persistent relationship conflicts or doubts about relationships
- symptoms of grief
- sudden suicidal thoughts
Most thoughts associated with an existential crisis fall into one of seven categories:
- anxiety about death
- grieving change or losses
- concerns about freedom of choice
- self dignity
- quality and depth of relationships
- meaning of existence
- mysteries of the universe
An existential crisis related to death often means you’re focused on the possibility of dying and what happens after.
For some people, this existential anxiety may accompany or be a result of illness or aging. For example, a diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness may cause someone to become anxious about what the experience of dying feels like or what awaits after that.
Loss or change grief
Sometimes personal loss or sudden changes in life can lead to an existential crisis.
If you become disabled, for example, you may have questions about self-worth and purpose. Grieving the loss of an everyday function may push you to wonder about what your life may be like from now on.
The loss of a loved one can also spark thoughts about the finality of death or the meaning of life without that person.
Freedom of choice
The ability to choose your path in life can be very motivating.
But you may experience existential dread when you feel as though your choices in life may be taken away. You may also experience a crisis if you wonder about fate and destiny versus free will.
Life events that affect your sense of dignity and self-worth may cause existential crises.
You may have lost everything you own, for example. This, combined with cultural and social pressures, may lead you to believe you’ve lost your dignity. This could cause you to wonder about who you are without your possessions and might result in an existential crisis.
Human relationships are an important aspect of the human experience.
A sense of isolation or aloneness, created by deteriorated personal relationships, could lead you to experience existential dread.
Just as personal relationships are important, so is the quality of those relationships.
Experiencing repeated or long-term relationship challenges may lead you to wonder about your life purpose, for example.
Meaning of life
Wondering whether there’s any meaning to human life is one of the most common introspective questions. You might wonder why humanity exists and what your role could be on that timeline. These thoughts can become overwhelming for some people.
Mystery of the universe
Going beyond the meaning of life on earth are questions about the universe and the mystery of unending space. It may make you feel small or inconsequential, overwhelmed by thoughts of not knowing.
When thoughts about your existence and life itself make you feel anxious or depressed or are negatively affecting you in other ways, it may be time to see a mental health professional.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and, in some cases, medication can help ease symptoms related to existential dread.
In addition to professional support, there are a few things you could focus on to step away from feelings of dread.
These options include:
- taking it step by step and starting small
- keeping perspective and focusing on things you’re grateful for
- nurturing current or new relationships
- focusing on the self
- finding a support group
- looking to the future, not the past
- trying complementary therapies
Instead of focusing on broad, unanswerable questions, consider dismantling these topics into smaller segments.
Finding answers to smaller questions can create a sense of satisfaction. This can help you see how your life impacts the world around you on a daily basis and why you do make a difference as an individual.
For example, instead of wondering what your life purpose is, focus on what you did and accomplished today and how that made you feel. Do you want to continue doing this? And then go from there.
Part of living with existential dread is feeling as though there’s no point to anything.
Keeping track of important things you’re grateful for can be a great reminder of how small things in life can have positive impacts.
You may not understand or have answers for bigger questions in life, but you know what you feel grateful for.
When you feel alone, isolated, or as though no one around cares, it can be easier to fall into existential dread.
A focus on building and maintaining healthy relationships can create a desire and purpose to do things for those you care about.
Focusing on the self
Focusing on the things that bring you joy and fulfillment may help ward off an existential crisis.
Hobbies and goal-oriented activities can create a sense of accomplishment and pride in your capabilities as a person. Training and developing new skills can also open new opportunities to feel you have more to live for.
Joining support groups
You’re not the only one with existential thoughts. Speaking with people who share your concerns can help you work through your feelings and even find alternative answers to your questions.
You may also find someone has a perspective that helps you understand some of the topics you wonder about.
Past events and life circumstances can sometimes be heavy burdens.
Remembering that the past can’t be changed but that the future is full of possibilities can help motivate you toward positive outcomes.
Again, focus on this afternoon, tomorrow morning, and the next day. Go step by step.
Keeping your mind and body healthy can be a powerful tool when combating negative thoughts.
Complementary therapies may prove beneficial when managing thoughts of existential crisis. Meditation, mindfulness, reiki, massage, and breathing exercises may help to encourage relaxation and clarity of thought.
What Is an Existential Crisis? (And How to Cope With It)
How many times have you heard this from your parents or grandparents? Life, a few years ago&mdashbefore the Internet, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram&mdashwas so much less stressful.
Everything was simpler, people socialized more face-to-face, there was less pressure to wear many hats and pull yourself in multiple directions.
Today, though, life is supposedly more advanced&mdashwe have more things to make it all more convenient, but we have so much information thrown at us that, at times, it&rsquos hard to keep on top of everything.
The bottom line is that the &ldquobetter&rdquo life comes at a cost&mdashit&rsquos more taxing and strenuous to try and keep it all in balance.
In addition to these global forces, on a personal level, we all go through our own metamorphoses. We all have our own battles to fight, monsters to stand up against, ups and downs we need to overcome.
Eventually, we all reach a point in our lives when we are faced with some distressing event&mdashquite often outside of our control&mdashsuch as losing a loved one or going through sickness, divorce, or any other difficulty. These unfavorable experiences make it very challenging and impossible at times to keep it all together.
Psychologists call such states &ldquoexistential anxiety and depression,&rdquo or simply an &ldquoexistential crisis.&rdquo
As one can gather, these are not the highlight moments of our lives, but they are very important times of discovery and reinvention.
The American singer Tori Amos beautifully captured this notion:
&ldquoSome people are afraid of what they might find if they try to analyze themselves too much, but you have to crawl into your wounds to discover where your fears are. Once the bleeding starts, the cleansing can begin.&rdquo
So what is an existential crisis, exactly? We will work to define an existential crisis and help you learn how to cope with it.
Table of Contents
How to Work Through an Existential Crisis
Have you ever had an existential crisis? They're not fun. But man, they're important.
I had a miniature version of one a few weeks ago. It had been building up for a while, finally erupting when I spoke of it out loud during a brief, scattered bedtime conversation with my half asleep husband.
FYI. yes, you can totally work through an existential crisis by talking it out with someone who is barely listening. Sometimes you don’t really need advice, you just need a to hear your own voice. We always seek for answers outside of ourselves, but that’s not where answers live.
Here’s what else I learned while talking to my sleepy husband:
1. Don’t abandon the people you love in your quest for answers.
Me: What if we never have kids? I mean, what if what we have now is all it’ll ever be? Would this marriage be enough for me to be happy?
Him: You’re seriously making me feel like crap right now.
2. The problem is never what you think it is. Dig deeper.
Me: Sorry, I think I said that because I’m depressed. I don’t know why I’m depressed though. I think it’s because you were outside grilling and having dinner with the neighbors while I was here folding laundry.
Him: You should have come out with us.
Me: No, actually…I wanted to be alone. But I wished I was working on a craft project instead of folding laundry. I think I’m depressed because I don’t have enough time for crafting.
Him: So work on your craft projects no one is stopping you.
Me: Maybe it’s not about crafting. Maybe it’s about not having enough time for things that are important to me. It’s like I don’t have enough balance in my life.
Me: I mean, yeah, I can hang out and grill with you guys. Or do more crafting. But I think what I really miss is what I had in my 20′s-- being part of a group of friends that works towards a common goal. So I think I need to be more active in church, or join an activist group or something.
Me: I need more than just a good job, a nice apartment, and some hobbies to be happy. I wanted those things last year, but now that I have them, it doesn’t feel like it's enough. I need to be working on something meaningful, and making meaningful connections with people while doing it.
3. Know when to seek, and when to let go.
Me: I think I’m having an existential crisis.
Him: [Half asleep, mumbling.] Kim, you’re always having an existential crisis.
Me: Oh yeah, I forgot. That’s so true.
And that’s when I fell fast asleep, relieved that I didn’t have to figure it all out right then and there. The weight of the world was off my shoulders, at least until tomorrow.
And then I remembered: Questions, answers, more questions– that’s how life works. As long as we’re consciously seeking, we won’t be stuck forever.
Your Turn: Have you ever worked through an existential crisis? How did you come to a place of peace?
A new direction
When he recovered from tuberculosis, he became a new man. In 1938, he returned to New York to finish his theology studies. After that, he decided to study psychoanalysis and got his Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia University.
Rollo May was also really interested in humanistic psychology. From what he read and his reflections, he was able to define what existential psychology consisted of. It rested on four pillars:
- Humans have antagonistic forces inside of them and this leads to anguish, which is also the driving force of their lives.
- The meaning that each person gives to their life is reflected in their decisions and commitment.
- Human beings don’t have to be one way or another. Everyone is, becomes, and creates themselves.
Existential depression in gifted individuals
It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression. Although an episode of existential depression may be precipitated in anyone by a major loss or the threat of a loss which highlights the transient nature of life, persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to experience existential depression spontaneously. Sometimes this existential depression is tied into the positive disintegration experience referred to by Dabrowski (1996).
Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or “ultimate concerns”)–death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?
Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life. Other more specific characteristics of gifted children are important predisposers as well.
Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. Traditions are questioned or challenged. For example, why do we put such tight sex-role or age-role restrictions on people? Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing and then do another? Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others? How much difference in the world can one person’s life make?
When gifted children try to share these concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. They discover that others, particularly of their age, clearly do not share these concerns, but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others’ expectations. Often by even first grade, these youngsters, particularly the more highly gifted ones, feel isolated from their peers and perhaps from their families as they find that others are not prepared to discuss such weighty concerns.
When their intensity is combined with multi-potentiality, these youngsters become particularly frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to develop all of the talents that many of these children have. Making choices among the possibilities is indeed arbitrary there is no “ultimately right” choice. Even choosing a vocation can be difficult if one is trying to make a career decision between essentially equal passion, talents and potential in violin, neurology, theoretical mathematics and international relations.
The reaction of gifted youngsters (again with intensity) to these frustrations is often one of anger. But they quickly discover that their anger is futile, for it is really directed at “fate” or at other matters which they are not able to control. Anger that is powerless evolves quickly into depression.
In such depression, gifted children typically try to find some sense of meaning, some anchor point which they can grasp to pull themselves out of the mire of “unfairness.” Often, though, the more they try to pull themselves out, the more they become acutely aware that their life is finite and brief, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a quite large world, and that there is a frightening freedom regarding how one chooses to live one’s life. It is at this point that they question life’s meaning and ask, “Is this all there is to life? Is there not ultimate meaning? Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? I am a small, insignificant organism who is alone in an absurd, arbitrary and capricious world where my life can have little impact, and then I die. Is this all there is?”
Such concerns are not too surprising in thoughtful adults who are going through mid-life crises. However, it is a matter of great concern when these existential questions are foremost in the mind of a twelve or fifteen year old. Such existential depressions deserve careful attention, since they can be precursors to suicide.
How can we help our bright youngsters cope with these questions? We cannot do much about the finiteness of our existence. However, we can help youngsters learn to feel that they are understood and not so alone and that there are ways to manage their freedom and their sense of isolation.
The isolation is helped to a degree by simply communicating to the youngster that someone else understands the issues that he/she is grappling with. Even though your experience is not exactly the same as mine, I feel far less alone if I know that you have had experiences that are reasonably similar. This is why relationships are so extremely important in the long-term adjustment of gifted children (Webb, Meckstroth and Tolan, 1982).
A particular way of breaking through the sense of isolation is through touch. In the same way that infants need to be held and touched, so do persons who are experiencing existential aloneness. Touch seems to be a fundamental and instinctual aspect of existence, as evidenced by mother-infant bonding or “failure to thrive” syndrome. Often, I have “prescribed” daily hugs for a youngster suffering existential depression and have advised parents of reluctant teenagers to say, “I know that you may not want a hug, but I need a hug.” A hug, a touch on the arm, playful jostling, or even a “high five” can be very important to such a youngster, because it establishes at least some physical connection.
The issues and choices involved in managing one’s freedom are more intellectual, as opposed to the reassuring aspects of touch as a sensory solution to an emotional crisis. Gifted children who feel overwhelmed by the myriad choices of an unstructured world can find a great deal of comfort in studying and exploring alternate ways in which other people have structured their lives. Through reading about people who have chosen specific paths to greatness and fulfillment, these youngsters can begin to use bibliotherapy as a method of understanding that choices are merely forks in the road of life, each of which can lead them to their own sense of fulfillment and accomplishment (Halsted, 1994). We all need to build our own personal philosophy of beliefs and values which will form meaningful frameworks for our lives.
It is such existential issues that lead many of our gifted individuals to bury themselves so intensively in “causes” (whether these causes are academics, political or social causes, or cults). Unfortunately, these existential issues can also prompt periods of depression, often mixed with desperate, thrashing attempts to “belong.” Helping these individuals to recognize the basic existential issues may help, but only if done in a kind and accepting way. In addition, these youngsters will need to understand that existential issues are not ones that can be dealt with only once, but rather ones that will need frequent revisiting and reconsideration.
In essence, then, we can help many persons with existential depressions if we can get them to realize that they are not so alone and if we can encourage them to adopt the message of hope written by the African-American poet, Langston Hughes:
Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams.
For if dreams go,
Life is a barren field
Covered with snow.
Dabrowski, K. (1966). The Theory of Positive Disintegration. International Journal of Psychiatry, 2(2), 229-244.
Halsted, J. (1994). Some of My Best Friends Are Books: Guiding Gifted Readers from Pre-School through High School. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press, Inc. (Formerly Ohio Psychology Press).
Webb, J. T., Meckstroth, E. A. and Tolan, S. S. (1982). Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press, Inc. (formerly Ohio Psychology Press).
Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
Permission to reprint this article has been granted to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development by Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG).
Facing an existential crisis: What to know
An existential crisis may occur when a person frequently wonders whether or not life has any inherent meaning or purpose. A person may also question their own existence within a world that might seem meaningless.
Experiencing an existential crisis is common, and it is normal and often healthy to question one’s life and goals. However, an existential crisis can contribute to a negative outlook, especially if a person cannot find a solution to their questions of meaning.
Existential crises may be associated with a number of mental health conditions. For this reason, it is sometimes best to involve a doctor — especially if an existential crisis has the potential to lead to despair or suicidal ideation.
That said, there are some ways to face an existential crisis in a healthy way, ultimately benefiting a person’s mental health and well-being.
Keep reading to learn about the different types of existential crisis, the risks and complications, and some ways to overcome them.
Share on Pinterest A person experiencing an existential crisis may wonder if life has any inherent meaning.
Simply put, the term “existential crisis” refers to a moment of deep questioning within oneself. This usually relates to how someone sees themselves and their purpose within the world.
A person who is experiencing an existential crisis may try to make sense of some grand or difficult-to-answer questions, such as if their life has any purpose or if life itself has any inherent meaning at all.
Although it is healthy to question one’s life and work, existential crises can take a negative turn. This is not always the case, but it may occur if the person is unable to find an answer to these challenging questions.
An existential crisis may also occur after long bouts of negative emotions, feelings of isolation, or other stressors, such as depression or anxiety.
Feeling down or going through a period of anxiety and negativity are also normal. However, when these emotions or struggles build up and have no resolution, a person may fall into despair about themselves, their value, or their purpose in the world.
When asking questions from this negative headspace, there may only seem to be negative answers, and this can be harmful for a person’s mental health.
The term “existential crisis” has its roots in existentialism, which is a school of philosophy. Existentialism focuses heavily on the meaning and purpose of existence, both from an overall and individual perspective.
The core idea behind existentialism is that the world is inherently meaningless, and that it is down to the individual to create their own sense of meaning and purpose.
Philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche have both published works that scholars consider to be existentialist. It was Jean-Paul Sartre who eventually popularized the term “existentialism” in the 1940s.
It was not until years later that psychologists would define the scenario as an existential crisis.
In the simplest terms, an existential crisis refers to facing the crisis of one’s own existence. However, this is a very broad umbrella term. There are many types of questions that may cause an existential crisis, and a person may face one of many different issues.
The sections below look at the types of existential crisis a person may experience.
Perhaps the central question surrounding an existential crisis is whether or not a person’s life, or life itself, has any preexisting meaning. A meaningless life is not appealing to many, so humans will tend to create a meaning if they cannot find one.
Historically, this meaning came from religion, but it may now come from such things as family, work, passion and enjoyment, or travel. The basic idea is that a person must find their own meaning because there is no inherent meaning in the life that precedes them.
However, if through this questioning a person cannot find a sense of meaning, they may have deep feelings of existential anxiety.
Emotions and existence
Some people may try to block out or avoid feelings that they struggle with, such as suffering or anger, thinking that this will allow them to only experience feelings they want to enjoy, such as happiness or tranquillity.
This may lead to some people not giving validity to all of their emotions, which may, in turn, lead to a false happiness. This could make a person feel out of touch with their emotions. If this state breaks down, it may lead to a type of questioning that could cause an existential crisis.
Some people may experience feelings of inauthenticity that could lead to an existential crisis.
For example, a person may feel that they are not being true to themselves, or that they are not being authentic to who they are. They may feel that they are not acting authentically in various situations.
Questioning this may lead to a breakdown of the various definitions a person has given themselves, which may cause great anxiety, a crisis of identity, and eventually one of existence.
Death and the limitations of mortality
Anyone can experience an existential crisis. However, some forms of questioning and crisis may go hand-in-hand with certain life events. For example, as a person gets older, they may struggle to come to terms with their own mortality.
Finding the first gray hair or seeing age lines and wrinkles in the mirror can make a person very aware of the aging process and the fact that their life will one day come to an end.
An existential crisis based on death and mortality is not uncommon in people who receive news of a life threatening illness. They may ask themselves if they have truly accomplished anything in life. They may also become truly aware of death and the anxiety of facing the end of their life.
The unknown aspects of death, such as the mystery of what awaits people afterward, can also trigger deep feelings of anxiety and fear in some people. This can also lead to an existential crisis.
Connectedness and isolation
Connectedness and isolation may seem to be polar opposites, but they exist on more of a sliding scale in humans. Humans are inherently social creatures and need to form connections with others to meet some of their most basic needs.
However, humans also need times of isolation to engage with themselves and develop certainty in their own ideals.
Having either too much isolation or too much connectedness may lead to a crisis of sorts. Without isolation, for example, a person may lose aspects of themselves to the group.
On the other hand, a loss of connectedness — due to the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, or feeling ostracized from a group — may also cause someone to question these connections and how they relate to their own existence.
Freedom is a common aspect of existential crises. Being an individual means having the freedom to make one’s own choices. However, the flip side of this is that it also means being responsible for the outcome of those choices.
This can lead to an uncertainty about taking any action for fear that it may be the wrong action or lead to undesirable consequences.
This type of crisis can trigger anxiety not only about choice, but also in relation to how these choices shape life and existence as a whole.
As one article in the Archives of Internal Medicine explains, existential crises are common in people who face advanced or progressive illnesses.
Existential crises may also have links to other events in life, such as:
- turning a culturally significant age, such as 40 or 50
- losing a loved one
- going through a tragic or traumatizing experience
- experiencing a change in relationships, such as getting married or divorced
There may also be a link between an existential crisis and certain mental health conditions, including:
However, this does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.
Experiencing an existential crisis does not automatically mean that a person has a mental health issue. In fact, it can be a very positive thing. Questioning one’s life and purpose is healthy. It can help provide direction and lead to better fulfilment in oneself.
The following sections provide some simple tips that may help a person positively overcome an existential crisis.
Keep a gratitude journal
Rather than having one large, meaningful experience that gives life purpose, most people have a series of small but significant experiences that make up their life. Keeping a gratitude journal can be a great way to identify these moments.
A person can add these small and meaningful events to their journal as they happen. Looking back on this journal later may help remind a person of the things they enjoy about life, as well as the positive experiences and interactions they have that collectively give their life meaning.
Do not give in to pessimism
When a person finds themselves in existential chaos, it can be easy to let the negative thoughts take over. However, this may give rise to even deeper feelings of negativity.
A person should try to acknowledge any pessimistic ideas but then replace them with their optimistic counterparts. This may help control the inner dialogue a person has or at least make the self-talk more neutral.
Look for smaller answers
Part of the weight of an existential crisis is in trying to find a single, all-encompassing answer to a question that may be too large or complex to answer in such a way.
Trying to find grand answers to these big questions can cause even more anxiety, leading to deeper feelings of worry and despair.
Instead, it could be much easier to break these very large questions into smaller chunks. Then, work to find answers to these smaller questions.
For instance, instead of asking whether or not a person has done anything with their life as a whole, they should ask themselves how they have impacted the world around them in the past month.
This may reveal the small but positive actions a person has performed, such as having conversations of support with friends or colleagues. These positives may otherwise go unnoticed when looking at the large, overarching questions of life.
Talk it out
Talking to oneself is helpful, but it may lead to similar conclusions each time.
Having a person or group to talk to, such as a friend or trusted loved one, may help a person see the crisis from a different perspective. This can give them more options and possibilities to explore.
A study in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care notes the importance of discussion groups for people with cancer who are facing existential dilemmas.
Having discussions with their peers about these topics can help such people face challenges and learn, possibly even finding the answers together.
Midlife Crisis Explained
The midlife crisis is, at bottom, the dawning realization of individual mortality. It might manifest as an “emotional crisis of identity and self-confidence” but this emotional crisis of identity and self-confidence always occurs against the backdrop of death. It’s the unsettling feeling Rollo May put so succinctly – that it turns out life is not a never-ending upward spiral of bigger and better things.
The wave of life grows at first, then it crests, and finally it breaks upon the shore to dissolve back into the ocean where it formed. In youth we all know at the theoretical level that we’ll one day die but we don’t feel this reality in our bones. We ride the upward momentum of the ever-growing wave and we feel good, we feel that life with all its myriad possibilities is laid out before us and we’ll have the chance to experience it all, to be everything we want to be, to do everything we want to do. Death is real for other people but not for us. Death is not personal. The folly of youth is the belief in personal immortality, the belief that we’ll remain young and unchanged forever.
But the drum of time beats a steady rhythm onwards, with or without our say so, and before we know it, seemingly in the blink of an eye, we’ve got more years under our belts than we might have in front of us. We come to see that the wave can’t keep growing indefinitely, that it will indeed crest, and that after it crests it will break. All those things we were going to be, all those endeavors we were going to pursue, all the infinite time laid out in front of us, suddenly make way for the grim recognition that we’re on the clock and may have already misused a lot of the limited time allocated to us. We might currently find ourselves in an unfulfilling situation that hinders rather than helps our self-actualization.
The midlife crisis could just as easily be called the midlife opportunity since we’ve only become aware of something profoundly important that was true from the get go but hidden from our consciousness due to our naive belief in personal immortality. Life is short and we only get one crack at it, one chance to become the people we were meant to be, one chance to offer something of ourselves up to the world, one chance to find peace and fulfillment in our lives and relationships.
But the tragic reality is that even in the throes of the midlife crisis most people don’t want to bring the real reason behind it into conscious awareness. They don’t want to fully accept their mortality and they don’t want to do the hard work of changing their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to get back on their personal paths of self-actualization. Instead they try to cheat their way out of the mess they’re in, to double down on what they’ve already been doing by focusing even harder on acquisition, or on amassing more power over others, or on increasing their prestige. A car, a boat, a house, a victim, an accolade, anything to dull the pain of the realization of death.
But the midlife crisis is an opportunity, just as all crises are opportunities. It can be used as motivation to take honest stock of the current life situation and to make the difficult changes now in order to insure that the remaining time allotted is used in a way that furthers rather than hinders self-actualization. The decision can be made to ‘trivialize the trivialities’ as Irvin Yalom likes to put it, to reprioritize life in order to put the really important things first and let the trivialities taking up so much psychic space fall by the wayside. Time cannot be stopped, mortality cannot be avoided, but how the allotted time is used is entirely up to us. The midlife crisis is a chance to change course and start using the remaining time in a productive way that aids rather than hinders self-actualization, in a way that makes us and others really happy, in a way that reduces suffering in the world. When we make these important changes the specter of death doesn’t go away but some of the terror does.
Existential Theory: What It Is And How Psychologists Apply It
Philosophical theories, such as existential theory, can seem so abstract that we wonder how they could influence our lives in any real way. We may think philosophy is interesting, but we ask ourselves, "What place does it have in the real world?"
That view is beginning to change. Many philosophical dilemmas have presented themselves because of recent advances in science, technology, and medicine. Still, we might wonder, "What does that have to do with my life right here and now, and who applies these theories?"
The existential theory isn't just for intellectuals, though. It's a way of thinking about the world that can lead us to make better decisions and experience our lives more profoundly. Psychologists who practice existential psychotherapy use it and teach their clients how to apply it to everyday decisions. So, what is an existential theory? How is it used in psychotherapy?
Brief Definition Of Existential Theory
The existential theory is a branch of philosophy that concerns what it identifies as existential questions. These are questions about the meaning of life. Examples include:
- Why do humans exist?
- Why do I exist?
- How shall I exist?
- What choices are mine to make?
- What do I value?
- Who am I?
- How can I contribute to my world?
Humanism Vs. Existentialism
Both Humanistic and Existential psychotherapy assume that people want to live a better life. In Humanistic Psychology, the assumption is that we strive to be our best selves. In Existential Psychology, the assumption is that we strive to live meaningful lives. While these two concepts are similar and may lead to identical results, the idea and the psychotherapeutic approach are different.
What Is Existential Anxiety?
When peoplestart doubting that their lives have meaning, they experience existential anxiety. This may set them on a quest to search for a meaning that will satisfy their need to relate to the world in a way that makes sense to them.
We may also experience existential anxiety when the meaning we have made for our lives conflicts with our life circumstances. We may become stuck, feeling confused, powerless, and anxious. Existential psychotherapy's goal is to help you resolve these dilemmas in a way that is meaningful to you.
How Psychologists Apply Existential Theory
Existential psychotherapy takes a unique viewpoint that's based on existential theory. Rather than looking at anxiety as an emotional problem that needs to be eliminated, existential therapists look at this anxiety as a signal that you're ready to make changes. As you explore the existential questions behind the anxiety, you gain wisdom and begin to understand your power.
The existential theory recognizes the power of the individual to choose their actions. In existential therapy, you can examine your situation more clearly, become more aware of your power in your situation, and begin to make the choices that are meaningful to you.
With the help of your therapist, you begin your quest to resolve the anxiety by realizing that you have a choice in everything. Typically, there are things in your situation that you can choose to change or not. However, even if you have no choice but to continue as you have been, you can still choose a different way to think about, feel about, and live with that situation.
Personal identity is an important question in existential theory. When you know who you are as a human, you can understand better what's right and wrong for you. Through introspection and talking with others, you can consider what those specific things are that make you uniquely you.
In existential therapy, your counselor can help guide you on this journey to self-understanding and self-acceptance. The first answers you might have to this question of identity may be physical attributes like the color of your hair, your height, and your age. Other answers that may come are your occupation, your marital status, and what town or city you live in. These answers may or may not have much meaning for you. If you continue to examine this question, you can go deeper to learn who you are more deeply, including your abiding preferences, attitudes, thought processes, and ways of relating to others.
One of the most important jobs of an existential therapist is to help you understand that you are a free person and have the freedom to make your own choices. While this may seem like an obvious statement at first, we often fail to recognize our freedom in our own situations. We tell ourselves, 'I can't choose',even when we do have a choice to make.
The beauty of knowing you have a choice is that when you decide, you feel more in control. Even if you still don't like the situation, you have chosen to stay in it, and you've understood why you are staying. You no longer feel powerless. Instead, knowing that it's your choice to be in the situation, you accept what comes more easily.
By the same token, when you choose to make a choice, it is you who have made it. If you don't like the way it turns out, there's no one else to be angry or upset with. You know why you made the choice you did, and you know that, given what you knew then, it was the right decision for you at the time. Now, all you need to do to relieve the anxiety that comes up from choosing something that turned out badly is to examine where you are now and make a new choice. So, the existential theory is, in essence, a forward-thinking philosophy.
Choices Aren't Easy
The existential theory recognizes the difficulty of making important life choices. Therapists who apply this theory accept that conflicting ideas are going to exist in almost every situation. They help you find your way to accept life's basic paradoxes and conflicts as well. Also, they help you identify those tensions and decide how you can resolve them, either by taking a specific action or by changing the way you live with the situations, to make the most meaning in your life.
Narrow And Wider Perspectives
When you talk to an existential therapist, you'll likely look at situations that cause anxiety from many different perspectives. At some points, you'll focus on what the situation is like for you as an individual. At other times, you might consider what it means in the larger scheme of things. By zooming out and in on your life, you can develop a more unified worldview that you can live with on an individual level.
Your Choices Matter
Another aspect of existential psychotherapy is the idea that you are an innately valuable person. Your ability to choose for yourself is crucial to living a meaningful life. Existential therapy can be practiced in many different ways, but one core ideathat rarely varies is that the process is all about helping you learn what's meaningful to you and make choices based on that meaning. In other words, what is true for you is what matters most.
Another feature of existential therapy is its assumption that being authentic helps us live in meaningful ways. After all, how can you do what's most important to you without revealing something about yourself? The existential therapist encourages you to be real with others as you grapple with your quest for meaning.
Relating To Others Is An Essential Part Of Human Life
Existential philosophy may be a lonely pursuit at times, but at the heart of the theory is the idea that who we are and how we decide to live is partly based on how we relate to others. In existential therapy, you examine your relationships with others to find out what you might want to change those relationships. You may also work toward learning to communicate more effectively so others can also understand what matters most to you.
How Can I Contribute?
One way you can find meaning in your life is to find a way to contribute to the world around you. The truth is that you will contribute something, whether it's helpful or not. You can't live in the world without having some effect on it. The key for existentialists is to find ways to give to those around you the way you prefer to give, by doing the things that come from who you are as a person.
How Do I Find An Existential Therapist Near Me?
Finding an existential therapist locally may be easy if you live in a large city, although you may have to drive through intense traffic to get there. If you live in a less-populated area, there may not be such a therapist near you. Look at the therapist's website to see if they mention what type of therapy they practice.
Another option is to talk to an existential counselor online through BetterHelp.com. You can choose from hundreds of therapists, many of whom are existential therapists or eclectic therapists who include existential concepts in their counseling. Counseling may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when looking at ways to live a meaningful life, but it can be a great resource. Anarticle from The Humanistic Psychologistnotes that existential therapists helped patients understand their life experiences and goals more deeply. Additionally, a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion found that women, in particular,experienced high levels of self-growth after existential therapy interventions. 90% of the participants reported experiencing better attitudes toward life than individuals who did not attend the sessions.
When you want to figure out who you are, what matters most to you, and how you want to live in the world, an existential therapist may just be the helper you're looking for. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing different existential issues.
"Kristen helps me to see my life and myself from a different perspective. I tell her about my experiences and she is able to hone into another side of the story that I couldn't get working things out on my own. And I had tried, for a very long time. As someone particularly skeptical of counseling in general, it has been refreshing to speak and work with someone who genuinely recognizes that I am seeking help but reluctant to take it. Her patience and consistent inquiry have been the greatest asset for me and I appreciate my time with her."
"I came to Gary through BetterHelp in a time of crisis in my life, experiencing issues and problems I had never faced before. He listened to my story and understood what i was going through. With the advice he provided, he shed light on my situation and I felt a new lease of life, like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I saw everything in a new light, from a new and better perspective and now I'm on a new path away from my troubles. I haven't looked back and thats all down to the help Gary provided me. I couldn't recommend him more if you're going through a tough moment in your life, thank you."
Moving Forward and Healing
Existential Therapy is a therapy modality based on the works of the Existentialists, answering life's big questions, such as "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?" Answering these questions and finding your own meaning in life, and your own motivations are an important part of Existential Therapy, and can help with large-scale difficulties, such as addiction, depression, and anxiety. Exploring some of the most thought-provoking questions with the help of a qualified health professional, you can find what gives you meaning, who you are, and why you are here.
How to overcome an existential crisis
Hi everyone! I recently got over my existential anxiety/crisis, and although some thoughts I’ve definitely been improving and I wanted to help some of you out since I don’t see enough posts on here about overcoming this. My crisis was triggered by the death of a family member by liver cancer from hepatitis B (i added the reason because it stressed me out to hear about a death and not know the reason) and lasted about 2 months but was some of the worst months of my life.
Some tips to help you get out of this are:
-Don’t do research. Every time I googled a question like “do we have free will” it just sent me into a spiral and I never felt satisfied afterwards. Since I’ve stopped, it has made a huge difference.
-Meditate. Whenever you have the urge to start thinking about existential related things or google, instead practice some meditation (Guided meditation on youtube is helpful). I always felt better afterwards and I could focus on what I wanted to much better afterwards- like studying and friends.
-Don’t go on this sub. It might be different for everyone but ngl this sub just stressed me out more.
-Don’t stay at home. It creates a greater likelihood of you overthinking useless thoughts. Recently I’ve been going on a lot more trips and places with friends, and it has helped me place more focus on the things that actually matter to me and enjoy life.
Try to accept the fact that no one knows the answer, and that’s okay. You’d probably much rather put your energy elsewhere anyways and that’s where it shall go. Try not to worry about the things you can’t control, but rather focus on the things that you can. Good luck guys!