What Is An Existential Crisis And How Can It Be Resolved?
By: Sarah Fader
Updated February 11, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
When someone is experiencing an existential crisis, they have come to the point where they are questioning their purpose in life and the “real meaning” of life. We all want to feel like our life has meaning and when we start to ask the big questions about our purpose in life - an existential depression is often the result.
Well-known comedians and amateur laugh-masters alike often poke fun at existential crises. 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.
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.
Existential Crisis: What's Happening And Why
Psychologists define an existential crisis as a turning point at which we begin to more deeply question our meaning and purpose in life. It's a moment when you feel the need to find meaning or purpose in your life and has often been referred to as the “dark night of the soul.”
An existential crisis can happen when you're under any type of crisis, stress, or facing a difficult decision. It can also happen at a quiet time when life seems mundane or pointless, or you're disconnected from others around you while you struggle with understanding your own purpose in life.
There are plenty of different reasons why someone might have an existential crisis and begin experiencing existential depression. You might be at a point in your life where something needs to shift and change. Our modern world changes constantly, and so do you. Our fast-paced modern society may also make us feel pressured to keep constantly moving and changing, whether this is the right choice or us or not. You may reexamine the existential givens at any time as your way of being in a world that is constantly changing. Below we'll explore different kinds of existential depression.
An Existential Crisis Can Make You Feel Alone, But You're Not
Existential crises are common, but that doesn't make them less painful when you begin struggling with one. This is especially true if your crisis is related to a major loss in life or losing a loved one. You might not know what to do with these feelings because there doesn't seem to be a solution on the horizon.
An existential crisis is a moment or period of time in which you feel uncomfortable, unsure, and unable to figure out what you're “supposed” to achieve on this earth. You may be having obsessive and repetitive thoughts that tell you you're living a meaningless life. An existential crisis is difficult to talk about as feelings of hopelessness can lead you to believe that no one understands what you're going through, but if you can manage to open up about it, it's helpful to confide in a loved one and explore your thoughts and feelings.
Another thing that you can do to help improve your outlook in life is to start journaling about your existential crisis. You may not initially understand your feelings of anxiety, depression, and sense of being overwhelmed, but if you write them down, it'll help you to clarify what you're going through and why. Therapy, whether it's online or in your local area, can also help you understand why you're feeling that your life is pointless and help you to rediscover your purpose in life by exploring these feelings.
Your therapist is there to help you work through transitions and rocky times in your life and help you understand that your life has meaning and purpose. You won't be going through an existential crisis forever, and you will get to the other side even if it's hard to see it at the moment, regardless of the type of crisis you're currently experiencing.
So, what kinds of existential crises are there? Different psychology writers who focus on promoting personal growth have identified four or five aspects of life based on existential philosophy. Each instance of angst and existential despair can be a source of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
By resolving these dilemmas and answering the hard questions related to human existence, you can move past your existential crisis.
- Freedom And Responsibility
Many people think that the ultimate meaning of life is complete freedom. Freedom sounds wonderful at face-value. After more consideration, however, whether it’s inherited or borrowed, you may realize that freedom comes with responsibility.
When you mentally accept your freedom to make choices, in relation to the boundaries of ethics and traditional morality you can no longer blame someone else for what you do and the outcomes of those actions. You've become philosophically aware that there is actually a widespread existential crisis as collective humanity grapples with the common challenges of daily life and existence.
Even if you're imprisoned either literally or physically, you can choose psychological freedom by staying true to your faith in religion or other independent philosophy. 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 and their perspective on it even as they faced the hardships of the concentration camps in WWII. When they made those choices, they considered that angst was not changing the outcome of their inevitable situation.
As a result, they accepted the responsibility for their responses to the situation and created a more widespread positive emotional support system that helped them focus on the more positive aspects of life -- even in the midst of an 'existential crisis.'
You can choose not to accept your freedom and believe that life is meaningless. However, when you do, you are at the mercy of circumstances and one or more people who will then make those decisions for you. Regardless of the route you take, it's likely that at some point an existential crisis may result. The way you exist and behave in the world, and your outlook on these things, 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 instead of developing a crisis of meaning.
It would be too hard to be constantly plagued by racing thoughts that make you painfully 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 and develop coping skills related to the inevitable death of a loved one or yourself.
- 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; this is partially why our current age is seeing high levels of constant engagement on social media, as people seek out in-person socialization less and instead rely on “easier” forms, such as social media.
Complete connectedness, on the other hand, may be socially fulfilling but allow you little independence and an existential crisis can happen as you begin to search for your own meaning in life. Learning to balance social health with independence and self-awareness is key.
The collective nature provided by social media engagements is a testament to this concept. Too much social interaction has been tied to depression as the overwhelming nature of the constant online barrage of thoughts, ideas, and people has been found to cause racing thoughts as people try to develop new ways to navigate so many ongoing social interactions.
- Meaning And Meaninglessness
Humans seek meaning for and in their lives. When we can't find it, we create it. When we can find neither meaning in our lives or the mental energy needed to create it --existential dread and existential anxiety fill their minds.
Psychological disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, are commonly developed during these periods of seeking meaning. Many of us need meaning the most during times of adversity. It is in those moments that you choose between coping/surviving and growing as a person that can translate to an existential crisis is not navigated in a thoughtful and healthy way. If we’re struggling to find that meaning, we may engage in obsessive-compulsive acts to help us subconsciously feel more in control. These exist on a spectrum, and does not necessarily mean that we have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- 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.
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 in the past and at the given moment, and thus help you pave a path for the future or at least feel more secure in your direction.
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. We have a great deal of control over our attitudes – often more than we think!
Beliefs: Your beliefs include your religious beliefs, core values, ethics, and so on. You may practice a religion but not subscribe to its entire 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. All of these help guide our lives and how we perceive it.
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 than before you made that choice. When you're dealing with an existential crisis, life meaning, death, freedom, isolation, and emotion all can play a part in the decision-making 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 a more informed and self-aware choice.
Identify Your Existential Dilemma
When you're in the midst of an existential dilemma, you begin to contemplate issues surrounding existence, or the understanding of what it means to be alive. You may feel anxiety, fear, or even a sense of dread. You may have a feeling that everything is hopeless or pointless. An existential crisis can also alternate between these traditional, negative feelings and feelings of excitement – something that can be tiring and potentially confusing. A great first step is to push past this dilemma and find the source of the existential crisis.
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. Doing so will allow you to work through it healthily and more quickly than if you tried to repress it.
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, that you're struggling with how to move forward with your career. You feel 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 figure out 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 or 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 can find the one best for you. 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 a list of 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. Learn to be ok with sometimes being and feeling humble (not in a self-deprecating way, of course) – after all, we’re only human, and we can’t know or do everything!
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 Crisis has built a community for himself. He writes about his experiences with mental illness, partly to reduce the stigma and to increase understanding of mental health issues while empowering others to do the same.
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 may 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 seem 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 professional help.
BetterHelp Wants You To Enjoy A Fulfilling Life
The online counselors at BetterHelp understand that life transitions are inevitable. We all go through periods where we're not sure what is supposed to happen next. It's not just the experience of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood; existential crises are about questioning why you're on this earth and what you're meant to do with your life. What is your purpose? A licensed therapist can help you address each of these questions in a logical way that makes sense to you, and also gives you purpose and meaning in life.
Sometimes we experience existential crises due to more common mental health issues like depression. Research shows that online therapy can play a significant role in treating depression, and in the medium and long-term is actually more effective in continual reduction of symptoms than in-person therapy. In fact, this research found that 57% of online therapy clients no longer felt or displayed symptoms of depression even three months post-treatment, as opposed to just 42% of in-person therapy clients.
Our licensed therapists are available to you anytime, anywhere, even from the comfort of your own home. Sessions are fully personalized, and can be conducted via video chat, phone call, instant messaging/texting, live voice recording, or any combination thereof. The online nature of BetterHelp also enables it to be cheaper than traditional face-to-face therapy options. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"I have been in therapy numerous times throughout my life. I feel that working with Dan has been much more productive than even face to face therapy with PHDs or MDs. I can disclose very personal information and always feel safe and unjudged. When I get off track he gently and kindly gets me back on track. He has gotten me through what is probably the biggest crisis in my life thus far. I would recommend Dan to anyone seeking help."
"Hello! I strongly recommend Steven! I’ve had two sessions with him and they’ve already made a world of difference. He is helping me dig deep, more than any therapist I’ve ever had. On identifying the where, what, who and why of how I exist right now. Love him!”
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.
*Note* If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, and is available 24/7.
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 session, you express your thoughts randomly, awkwardly, and disjointedly. That's alright. The therapist may rephrase what you say to make sure they understand, or ask more direct questions. As they do, you may develop a deeper understanding of your 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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