Although the meaning of the term “existential” can differ from person to person, it is understood by psychologists as “something universally human.” Existential thoughts include ideas about your life, values, relationships, and priorities. Although brief reflective periods are normal, an existential crisis occurs when these thoughts become persistent, overwhelming and unresolved.
What is an Existential Crisis?
An existential crisis is a stage of time when you examine important questions about your identity or the world around you and these thoughts become consuming and lead to extreme stress and despair. This definition of an existential crisis includes periods of examining your values, life goals, purpose, and relationships or questioning the meaning of life.
An existential crisis may occur during different stages of life, such as during adolescence, adulthood or senior living. The questions examined during each of these life stages can be very different. Existential crises can also be triggered by a stressful life event such as an illness or death, or by a period of loneliness or despair, such as after a divorce or job loss.
What does it mean to have an existential crisis? A prolonged existential crisis can interfere with your daily life and negatively impact your physical and emotional wellbeing. The stress and confusion of an existential crisis will last until the crisis has been acknowledged, addressed or resolved. In severe cases, an existential crisis can lead to depression, anxiety or a substance use disorder. In such cases, professional therapy may be needed.
Existentialism is a broad term that philosophers use to consider human actions, feelings, and beliefs. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, having proposed the theories of existentialism in the 19th century. He suggested that each person is responsible for finding meaning in their life and living it sincerely or authentically.
There are seven key themes of existentialism:
- Philosophy as a Way of Life: the idea that each person is a philosopher that can and should look inward to answer important life questions within themselves
- Authenticity: the idea that each person needs to live and act as their true self
- Freedom: the idea that each person is responsible for and in control of their values and actions, regardless of society’s values
- Situatedness: the idea that the external factors that surround an individual impact their experience
- Existence: the idea that individuals are conscious beings that act independently, rather than acting based on predetermined categories defined by society
- Irrationality/Absurdity: the idea that the world is naturally unfair and there is no real meaning in the world other than the meaning we each give it
- The Crowd: the idea that other individuals influence an individual’s life experience
Examples of Existential Crises
There are many examples of existential crises that you may experience, including:
- Entering a new life phase. An existential crisis can occur when you transition into a new age category, such as leaving childhood or entering senior life; it can also happen during major life events, such as graduating from college, starting a new job, getting married or divorced, having a child or retiring.
- Losing a loved one. An existential crisis can occur after the death of a spouse, parent, sibling, child or other loved one; dealing with death can make you question the meaning of life while confronting your own mortality.
- Questioning a career path. Uncertainty over your chosen career path can lead to significant stress; this uncertainty can involve deciding whether to quit your current job and begin a new career, go back to school or discover meaning in your current position.
- Losing faith in a religious tradition. If you are religious, you may question whether God exists, whether your chosen religion matches your current morals or where your soul goes after you die
- Illness. When faced with a severe and life-threatening illness, you may become overwhelmed with thoughts of death, meaninglessness, loneliness, and vulnerability
Importantly, different types of existential crises can and do occur together. For example, having a baby shortly after the death of a loved one can lead to significant despair and confusion. Each person experiencing an existential crisis will have a unique mix of life experiences and corresponding challenges to overcome.
Symptoms of an Existential Crisis
Symptoms of an existential crisis include:
- Obsessive worry
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Isolating yourself from loved ones
- Low motivation and energy
Causes of Existential Crises
Often, internal rather than external factors cause an existential crisis. These factors include:
- Repressed feelings (not allowing yourself to fully express your emotions)
- Feeling guilt or regret about something you did in the past
- Feeling unfulfilled with the choices you have made in life
- Uncertainty about the future
While these feelings are normal and healthy, they can contribute to an existential crisis if you do not fully work through them and they become increasingly overwhelming and stressful.
Overcoming an Existential Crisis
Getting help for an existential crisis often involves a holistic approach. Treatment for an existential crisis can include a combination of self-help techniques, finding a support network and professional therapy. The strategies to overcome an existential crisis can vary depending on your age and life situation.
When determining how to deal with your existential crisis, there are many self-help approaches that can be taken including focusing on positive ideas and actions, such as volunteering or working on a hobby you love, you can help eliminate negative thoughts. Talking with your loved ones about how you are feeling can help you gain a different life perspective and focus on your positive qualities. Writing down your existential feelings and the things you are grateful for can help you clarify your life questions and find purpose in your life. Meditating can also help reduce stress and relieve obsessive thoughts.
The concept of matching can also help resolve the existential questions that are creating conflict for you. For example, finding someone else in a similar life stage and with similar interests can help you gain perspective when entering a new life phase, questioning your religious beliefs or experiencing the loss of a loved one. Grief support groups may also help if you are dealing with the loss of a loved one. Similarly, being matched with a fulfilling career that fits your personality and values can assist with crises involving career paths.
If you are experiencing an existential crisis and are unable to handle it alone, you may benefit from behavioral training with a trained professional, such as an existential therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist. If you experience continued depression or anxiety or have suicidal thoughts during your existential crisis, it is critical to seek professional help immediately.
A licensed therapist can use techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you work through the difficult questions that characterize an existential crisis. They can also help you with the accompanying depression or anxiety through a combination of talk therapy and medication if needed.
Successfully resolving an existential crisis can prevent negative consequences including severe anxiety, depression, substance use disorders or damage to your relationships or career.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an existential crisis along with or due to a substance use disorder, The Recovery Village can help. You can receive comprehensive treatment from one of our facilities located throughout the country. To learn more about treatment programs, call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative today.
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Hvidt E, Søndergaard J, Ammentorp J, Bjerrum L, Hansen D, Olesen F, Pedersen S, Timm H, Timmermann C, Hvidt N. “The existential dimension in general practice: identifying understandings and experiences of general practitioners in Denmark.” Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, December 2016. Accessed June 4, 2019.
Andrews M. “The Existential Crisis.” Behavioral Development Bulletin, 2016. Accessed June 3, 2019.
Burnham D, Papandreopoulos G. “Existentialism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2019. Accessed June 3, 2019.
Ventegodt S, Kandel I, Neikrug S, Merrick J. “Clinical Holistic Medicine: The Existential Crisis—Life Crisis, Stress, and Burnout.” Scientific World Journal, 2005. Accessed June 3, 2019.