What Is An Existential Crisis And How Can It Be Resolved?

By Julia Thomas

Updated January 02, 2019

Well-known comedians and amateur laugh-masters alike often poke fun at an existential crisis. There's nothing wrong with that at all. Humor can be one way to deal with existential despair when nothing else works. Existential fear is such a common experience, laughing about it with others can bring us together in a positive way.

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Laughter offers relief, but it's usually only temporary comfort. Eventually, you may want to find a more helpful answer to your existential question. So, how do you deal with your dilemma in a more effective and meaningful way? The first step is to understand what existential crisis means.

What Is Existential Crisis?

Psychologists define existential crisis as a turning point. It's a moment when you feel the need to find meaning or purpose in your life.

An existential crisis can happen when you're under stress or facing a difficult decision. It can also happen at a quiet time when life seems pointless, or you're disconnected from others around you.

The fact that you have an existential crisis doesn't mean that you'll never have another one. The world changes constantly, and so do you. You may reexamine the existential givens at any time as your way of being in the world changes.

Being-In-The-World

Being-in-the-world is a term that existential psychotherapists use to describe each person's unique, personal way of existing. Being-in-the-world is a state in which you grow and find meaning through your thoughts, actions, and responses to experiences.

When you are facing an existential crisis, your being-in-the-world isn't working for you. As you grapple with the existential dilemma you're encountering; you develop a new meaning for yourself and a new way of being. Positively resolving the existential crisis is crucial to your future well-being.

Existential Givens

So, what kinds of existential crises are there? Different psychology writers have identified 4 or 5 existential givens that we all share. Each of these givens can be the source of existential dread, existential anxiety, or even existential despair. By resolving these dilemmas, you can move past your existential crisis.

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Freedom And Responsibility

Freedom sounds wonderful on the face of it. After more consideration, you may realize that freedom comes with responsibility. When you mentally accept your freedom to make choices, you can no longer blame someone else for your what you do.

Even if you're imprisoned, you can choose psychological freedom. Viktor Frankl, a 20th-century neurologist, psychiatrist, and existential theorist, wrote a book called "Man's Search for Meaning." The book discussed how holocaust survivors chose their ways of being in the world even as they faced the hardships of the concentration camps in WWII. When they made those choices, they accepted the responsibility for their responses to the situation.

You can choose not to accept your freedom. However, when you do, you are at the mercy of circumstances and one or more people who make those decisions for you. The way you are in the world depends partly on this existential choice between freedom/responsibility and limitation/dependency.

Death And Limitation

You can't choose whether to die or not. You can't choose to be limitless; no one is. What you can do is choose whether to acknowledge death and limitation psychologically. It would be too hard to be constantly aware that your life's journey will end in death. At the same time, the acknowledgment of death can help you live more fully now.

Isolation And Connectedness

Another existential dilemma is between isolation and connectedness, which exists on a continuum rather than as an on-off state. While complete isolation can seem comforting and easier to manage, it fails to meet crucial social needs. Complete connectedness, on the other hand, may be socially fulfilling but allow you little independence.

Meaning And Meaninglessness

The main theme of Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," is the existential dilemma of meaning vs. meaninglessness. Holocaust survivors fared much better if they had made meaning for themselves during that traumatic experience.

Humans seek meaning for their lives. When they can't find it, they create it. When they can do neither, existential dread and existential anxiety fill their minds. You need meaning most during times of adversity. It is in those moments that you choose between coping/surviving and growing as a person.

Emotions, Experience, And Embodiment

Existential psychology recognizes the importance of emotions. The work of existential theorist Rollo May has been considered the father of American existential psychology. May suggested that anxiety should be embraced positively. This goes along with Nietzsche's work, which encouraged the acceptance of emotional experiences.

Embracing your emotions isn't easy. It can make life feel less certain and well-controlled. If you begin to understand that you have a choice as to whether to experience the emotions fully or live a more controlled life, you might become anxious as you try to find the answer that's right for you in any given moment.

Steps In Resolving An Existential Crisis

Existential crises aren't easy to resolve. In many cases, you'll only be able to come to a temporary resolution. As you learn and experience more, you may revisit the same existential crisis. Still, with each time you contemplate meaning and mortality, you can grow as a person. How can you resolve these issues? You need to go through several steps.

Notice How You Are In The World

Your being-in-the-world is unique to you. Understanding who you are and what attitudes, beliefs, choices, and assumptions you hold can help you pinpoint your exact way of being recently and at the given moment.

Attitudes

Your attitudes are your evaluations about the things, people, events, and ideas in your world. You can have a positive or negative attitude about each of these things. Your attitude can be something you're aware of, or it can be an implicit attitude that resides in your unconscious.

Beliefs

Your beliefs include your religious beliefs as well as anything you think is the case, whether you have proof or not. You may practice a religion but not subscribe to its belief system. You may practice no religion but have many beliefs about spiritual things. You can have beliefs about seemingly insignificant things and beliefs about the all-encompassing meaning of the universe.

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Choices

A choice is an act of will that comes at the conclusion of a decision-making process. The result of choice might be that you act differently or that you think differently after the decision. When you're dealing with an existential crisis, meaning, death, freedom, isolation, and emotion all can play a part in the decision process.

Assumptions

What are your assumptions? What do you assume about the things, people, events, and thoughts in your world? You may be very well aware of assumptions you hold, or you may not even realize they're a part of the equation. When you dig deep to find the hidden assumptions driving your decisions, you can make an informed choice.

Identify Your Existential Dilemma

Typically, begin to contemplate issues surrounding one of the existential givens, they don't know exactly what the root problem is. They might know they feel anxiety, fear, or dread. Or, they may have a feeling that everything is hopeless and pointless. They may find themselves wandering through life aimlessly, unable to settle down or succeed. Your first step is to push past the day-to-day dilemmas to find the existential crisis that's causing you to suffer.

Recognize, Embrace, And Express Your Existential Fear

For many, life seems more certain when emotions are hidden or pushed aside. Existential theory suggests that the healthiest way to deal with emotions is to experience and embrace them. Allow yourself to feel the existential dread and anxiety. Express it in words, art, music, and actions.

Actively Seek Answers

Many people can resolve their existential crises after an active search for answers. You can find possible answers in several ways.

Self-Questioning

When you find the source of your existential anxiety, self-questioning can help you assess your being-in-the-world. With the answers you find, you'll know better how you experience life and what matters most to you. Once you have that answer, you can start to resolve the existential issues before you. These issues will vary from person to person; however, knowing what they are is powerful, and having a counselor to support your work through them can help. Let's say, for example; you're struggling with how to move forward with your career. You're stuck, and don't know what your next move is. A counselor can help you talk out what you don't like about your job, and help you decide what you want to do next.

Research

It's an excellent time to conduct research on your problems. Research allows you to get the opinions of others as well as facts about the issues you're facing. You can read, watch videos, go to lectures and church services, take classes, explore the world, or find a mentor. By increasing your knowledge, you can find more options for resolving your existential crisis.

Considering Options

Once you have questioned yourself and researched your issues, you'll have a variety of options to choose from, and find the best one. Considering the possibilities is a separate task. You'll need to weigh your hopes against your beliefs about the nature of reality to find a resolution that can help you, and that makes sense to you. The solution may not be obvious, but knowing that there are options is reassuring. You're not stuck. Part of being in an existential crisis is feeling stuck. Remember that it's your life, and you have the freedom to make choices about the things you can control. For example, let's say you're unhappy about where you live. You can consider other locations you'd like to move, and make a choice based on pros and cons.

Accept that You Can't Know Everything

Even if you spend years researching your existential issues and contemplating your way of being in the world, you can never know everything there is to know. Just accepting this limitation can significantly improve your ability to resolve your existential crisis. Relieve yourself from the pressure to know it all. Nobody knows everything, and it's okay to be confused or scared. Feel your feelings, and express them in a way that makes sense to you. Sometimes journaling can help you figure out what you want. Maybe meditation is a way you can sit with yourself and find some resolution to your problems.

Build And Maintain Connections With Others

Building and maintaining connections can be a difficult challenge, especially in times of tragedy and trauma. Those individual connections can help you resolve your crisis as you move through and beyond the adverse situation. Find people to reach out to so you can feel a sense of support. It can be people you know from work or friends you've had for a long time. If you have online friends, reach out to them. During a time of stress like having an existential crisis, you need friends and loved ones supporting you.

Speaking of building connections online, a blogger named Existential Criss has built a community for himself. He writes about his experiences with mental illness, partly to reduce the stigma and increase understanding of mental health issues.

Source: hill.af.mil

Find Your Existential Meaning

In writing and publishing his blog, Existential Crisis, has given himself a greater opportunity to find meaning. As you consider your existential crisis, think of ways you can create your meaning in life.

Look for opportunities to build meaning and connections. Find an ideology about death that makes sense to you, even if it's your invention. Allow yourself to feel your emotions more fully and find avenues for expressing them. Embrace as much freedom as you like and accept the responsibility that goes with it. When you can do this, your existential crisis will be resolved, at least for now.

What To Do When Existential Questions Become Existential Despair

You may have many feelings about your existential crisis. It may make your life even more challenging than it was before you realized something deeper was bothering you. You might be able to resolve your existential dilemma on your own. Many people have done just that. These individuals have worked hard thinking about what they're unhappy with in their lives, keeping a journal of their feelings, practicing mindfulness and accepting how they feel. They're talking to their friends, brainstorming ways to change the things in their lives that aren't working, such as leaving a toxic relationship or changing careers. Talking out your problems with a friend can shed light on them. There are times when you need more support working through an existential crisis. However, there may be times when you want or need to seek help.

How To Recognize When You Need Immediate Help

An existential crisis might cause you anxiety, but if you can withstand the emotional pain that comes with it, you can take a longer view. Here are some reasons you might need to get help right away:

  • You have suicidal thoughts, plans, or behaviors.
  • You seriously consider finding meaning by hurting someone else and find yourself making plans to do so.

In either case, it's crucial that you go to a local mental health clinic or hospital immediately.

Talking To An Existential Therapist Can Help

Existential therapy can help you deal with your crisis. In this type of therapy, the counselor allows you to direct your therapy, talking about what matters to you and working out the problem for yourself.

You might feel that in your first sessions, you express your thoughts randomly, awkwardly, and disjointedly. That's alright. The therapist may rephrase what you say to make sure they understand. As they do, you may develop a deeper understanding of your issues.

Many healthcare insurance companies favor the quick, readily measured intervention of cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT is very helpful for dealing with problem behaviors, but it won't help you deal with existential issues. If you're looking to work through existential matters, you'll benefit from a kind of therapy that focuses on life's deeper meaning for you. Existential therapy is an excellent form of treatment for people like you who are experiencing stagnation in life. You'll work through the roadblocks you're facing and develop a plan to make your life more fulfilling.

No matter what kind of issues you want to deal with, there's a licensed counselor who can help you at BetterHelp.com. They can help you wherever and whenever works for you, and the cost is about the same as an insurance copay. Just that easy, you can get to the work of identifying, understanding, and resolving your existential crisis!


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