An existential crisis is a time when a person questions the inherent meaning of life. They may be asking themselves about their purpose for existence. A person may go through this at various times in their lives. Ways to feel better may include reaching out to a trusted friend, changing your priorities, or speaking with a mental health professional.
What Is an Existential Crisis?
An existential crisis is a period in someone’s life where they begin to reconsider their beliefs, values, and place in the world. The crisis could be a relatively minor and short-term issue, or it could be a significant life event that challenges the very foundation of who the person is and how they want to live.
Life has its inherent ups and downs and most people experience times of anxiety or depression. But, with an existential crisis, these negative emotions can lead to significant despair, existential anxiety, or existential depression, causing them to struggle with deep questions regarding their meaning and purpose in the world. Irvin D. Yalom, a noted existential psychotherapist, stated, “The human being seems to require meaning. To live without meaning, goals, values, or ideals, seems to provoke considerable distress.”1
Origins of the Term
The term “existential” has only been popular for less than 100 years. A philosopher by the name Jean-Paul Sartre is usually associated with the idea, but it was not until several years later when psychologists began using the phrase to describe people who were questioning the meaning of life.
Are Existential Crises Common?
Existential crises are common, but they can look very different for different people, depending on the person and their situation. It is fairly likely that someone will have an existential crisis at some point in their lives. The intensity, severity, duration, and impact will vary greatly, though.
What Can Trigger an Existential Crisis?
Sometimes, existential crises may be instigated by significant events, such as:
- The death of a parent, family member, or friend
- The loss of a job or negative events at work
- New phases in a person’s life
- Feelings of isolation
- Not being sure of one’s identity
- The overwhelming options in life
- Health issues
- Divorce or a significant breakup
How to Identify When You’re Having an Existential Crisis
Depending on your situation, existential crises can be challenging to identify. They can come out of nowhere and leave a sizable impression on your life. First, a person should always distinguish an existential crisis from a clinical mental health condition. If you’re uncertain about whether you’re experiencing a deeper mental health concern, consider finding a therapist or presenting your concerns to your primary care provider.
If another mental health disorder is not present, you can identify an existential crisis by asking:
- Does the source of my distress come from questioning the meaning of life?
- Am I rethinking my life and my beliefs?
- Do I want my life to have more meaning?
Answering yes to any of these questions could signify a crisis.
What Are the Underlying Causes of Existential Crises?
While a life event like a death in the family may trigger an existential crisis, the underlying causes might be different for each individual:
A Big Life Change
A major life shift can bring about an existential crisis. Many times, people feel comfortable with their plans and goals, but when a change happens and life shifts, the situation forces them to reconsider their direction in life.
Experiencing a Loss
Whether the loss is a change in job, a disability, or a death, a loss can disrupt your life and make you question life’s meaning. Each loss can affect someone differently.
A Crisis of Values
A crisis of values can occur when a person is rethinking their current or previous values. Perhaps, they used to lie, cheat, or steal, but now they are considering another way of life.
Using or Recovering from Substances
While someone is using substances or they start the recovery process, they can take this opportunity to change their thinking and patterns. In this situation, an existential crisis can be a helpful tool.
Feeling Isolated or Disconnected
The United States has changed significantly over the last few generations, and so has our workload. These factors mean less time socializing, connecting and caring for one another. It is understandable that more of our society is feeling isolated, disconnected and experiencing existential crisis, craving connection that just isn’t there, in the way it used to be.
Also, the decline of our institutions, such as stable relational neighborhoods, churches, local merchants, and stable family doctors has led to a significant increase in feelings of isolation and estrangement.1
Freedom of Choice
The idea in the United States and other free countries, that we have the choice to create our own lives, can be overwhelming at times, and can cause existential dread or anxiety. Sometimes, having too much freedom of choice produces uncertainty, depression, even selfishness.3 When we suffer, we often blame ourselves because of this freedom of choice we may begin to fixate on past mistakes, which can create a great deal of anxiety. When we think ahead, the availability of choice in life can also create the same level of anxiety with too many possible paths.
The Crisis of Knowing We Are Mortal
As far as we know, we are the only animal that is capable of contemplating our own mortality. Most of the time our ego does a good job at avoiding contemplation regarding this topic. Often when an individual reaches certain milestone ages, they begin to ponder the existential meaning of life and it can sometimes turn into a crisis.
Someone may begin to have thoughts such as: “Have I lived a life of meaning?” Or, “Why am I still not happy?” These thoughts may begin to consume them as they realize they have lived “x number of years” and still feel unfulfilled. Knowing we have only a finite amount of time in this life, death anxiety may begin to creep back into our consciousness and take over our anxiety center.
An Emotional Crisis
Some people have lived their lives unknowingly suppressing emotions, and at some point, they may start to feel these emotions dramatically. This can leave a person feeling overwhelmed and they may begin a downward spiral if their emotional crisis is not resolved. Navigating these emotions when they have been suppressed for a lifetime, may lead a person feeling inauthentic and cause a crisis of an existential nature.
A Pre-Existing Mental Health Condition
When mental health symptoms are present, a person can begin to question their place in the world. Conditions that could be linked to existential crises include:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Personality disorders
Popular Choices For Online Therapy
BetterHelp – Best For Those “On A Budget”
Online-Therapy.com – Best For Multiple Sessions Per Week
According to 14 Best Therapy Services (updated on 1/16/2023), Choosing Therapy partners with leading mental health companies and is compensated for marketing by BetterHelp and Online-Therapy.
Signs & Symptoms of an Existential Crisis
The signs and symptoms of an existential crisis may include:4
- Emotional pain
- Disturbed sense of integrity
- Emotional vulnerability and fear
- Loss of motivation and even the meaning of goals
- Realization of your own mortality and feeling overwhelmed about and preoccupied with death
- Loss of personal values
- Remorse toward things you can’t change
- Trouble with decision making
- Having difficulty taking action
- Health problems
- Addiction or unhealthy substance use
- Loss of relationships
- Feeling anti-social
10 Ways to Overcome an Existential Crisis
Dealing with an existential crisis might take time and effort before you start to feel better, but there are several action steps you can take. First of all, if you are experiencing severe depression and having thoughts of suicide, call 911 or the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Assuming your negative emotions are manageable, other ways to cope include talking with a therapist, feeling your emotions, and reaching out to your support network.
Here are 10 tips for dealing with an existential crisis:
1. Understand Your Emotions
Learn to understand your emotions if you have denied or not understood their purpose in your life. Acknowledge your emotions as real and valid. If you have difficulty understanding emotions, start with noticing where you feel negative sensations in your body and you will start to understand what emotions you are feeling. Take time to sit with negative emotions and why they are coming up for you.
2. Re-Evaluate Your Life & Your Priorities
Take time to re-evaluate your life. If you are wondering about the purpose of life you may be at a pivotal point where you need to change your career, relationships, or other significant situations.
3. Feel Your Feelings
Provide yourself a sense of compassion toward the experience. It is not uncommon to go through these phases in life and honoring your feelings is important. Sit with your feelings and allow yourself to let them move through you. If you resist negative feelings, they often stay longer.
4. Reach Out to Your Support Network
Talk to friends and family about what you are going through. It may surprise you that others have felt what you are feeling and it may normalize the experience for you.
5. Try New Things
Open up your creativity and engage in activities you have never done before. Be open to taking risks that you may never have considered. If your psyche is telling you to change, do your best to make the changes. Your life purpose may change resulting in an end of the crisis.
6. Make Time to Play
Find activities that bring a sense of joy. This may be a hobby, playing with your dog, sports or laughing with co-workers and friends. Play is the opposite of depression and it is important to incorporate at least a little time for activities with no purpose other than joy. Get in touch with nature. The natural world around us gives perspective and can create a more positive mood.
7. Look to the Future
An existential crisis can make you think about the past and dwell on perceived shortcomings. Instead, spend time thinking about the future, what you can do, and the life goals you’d still like to achieve.
8. Keep Still
At times, existential crises can make you want to react quickly and intensely to the situation. Avoid this desire, be still, and be deliberate with your actions to limit the risks of overcompensating for the crisis.
9. Consider Your Accomplishments
Spend some time each day thinking about what you have done and the successes of your life. Doing so can show you that you have achieved good in your life. The crisis may be an overreaction.
10. Volunteer Your Time
Even though it is necessary, having an existential crisis is a self-focused situation. Volunteering some of your time can shift the focus away from yourself, which allows you the opportunity to refresh and gain a new perspective.
Existential Crisis Treatment
Beyond an appointment with your doctor to rule out any potential medical problems, talking to a therapist can be very helpful. Mental health professionals are trained to help you find meaning and purpose again, as well as help you in a crisis. Existential therapy might be a great fit for helping you move forward and process your experience.
Therapists are wonderful options to help you express and work through your situation. Therapists know how to ask questions that provoke thoughtfulness and reflection. Depending on the professional, they may require that you have a recognized mental health condition to enter in treatment. Asking this during your initial meeting is valuable.
How to Help Someone Experiencing an Existential Crisis
If you know someone experiencing an existential crisis, plan to do more listening than talking. Be a sounding board to allow them to express their frustrations, fears, and goals. One of the best ways to help them is by slowing down their process. Overreacting to an existential crisis can lead to sudden moves, big decisions, and irreversible regrets. Encouraging them to take their time and weigh the options can result in better long-term outcomes.
Final Thoughts on Existential Crises
Joseph Campbell, who studied mythology throughout all cultures had a great deal of wisdom from comparing myths and how it related to life’s meaning. He said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think we’re seeking an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.5
And so, it is the experience of living and feeling joy that we really seek. We bring purpose to our own lives through what motivates us and finding ways to give back to the world with our most authentic selves. When we live authentically, it is a gift for the world. If you are feeling an existential crisis, it may be a gift that is pushing you to find a new sense of purpose and new ways to express yourself in this life.