Existential Crisis Explained

Medically reviewed by Katrice Hollins, LCSW, LICSW
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Many people experience moments when they question their purpose, wonder whether they’re on the right path, or otherwise examine their lives for meaning, grappling with existential questions. If you’re asking similar questions right now or feeling unfulfilled by your life choices, you may wonder whether you’re experiencing an existential crisis. Certain life events or existential concerns can trigger this state. An existential crisis can be concerning, but it can also be a good time to reevaluate parts of one’s life you might like to change, fostering personal growth.

Below we’re going to discuss existential crises, their origins, common characteristics, and how to manage the emotions they can produce.

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What is an existential crisis?

Psychologists define an existential crisis as a turning point during which we deeply question our meaning and purpose in life, often triggered by life events or existential anxiety.

Existential crises can happen when you're under stress, facing a difficult decision, or dealing with a major life change, such as a serious illness or loss of a family member. For example, consider a situation in which you lose a loved one suddenly.

Age

As a teen or young adult, many people question their existence and whether they can impact the world. This can cause an early teenage crisis or later a sophomore crisis, which the Behavioral Development Bulletin explains is identified as a struggle between trying to find a sense of self and having to choose between what society expects from them and their own interests. This can often lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, or confusion about the future. As people get older, they may experience a later life crisis or a midlife existential crisis related to their mortality or issues regarding how much they’ve accomplished at this stage of their life.

Death

The death of a loved one can also lead to an existential crisis. At the root of the word existential is existence. When existence ceases suddenly, or without a reason, we may wonder why.

Life changes

Many people reevaluate their lives when they undergo a major change. Life changes could include losing a job, moving to a new city, breaking up with a partner, etc. When you alter the path you’re walking down, you can start to feel unsettled and unsure about the next steps.

Change in beliefs

Many belief systems, including religious beliefs, provide individuals with a unified purpose that—along with a set of values and rules—can provide order and meaning in life. If you’re questioning your beliefs, you may feel like you’re losing those built-in supports, not to mention the inner conflict you could feel regarding your views. You may start to question how life can be taken away so quickly or what your life means without that person in it. This can, in turn, make you question your own existence and lead to an existential crisis characterized by negative emotions and negative thoughts.

In some severe cases, rumination about the meaning of life and one’s existence can lead to a compulsive disorder. Existential obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may lead individuals to spend hours going over the same unanswerable questions again and again, which can begin to negatively impact day-to-day life. 

You might also be at a point in your life where you feel unfulfilled or stagnant, as though something needs to change, or you could be experiencing mental health challenges. Before we get into other causes, though, we’re going to discuss some common signs of an existential crisis.

Signs of an existential crisis

While there are no specific criteria for identifying an existential crisis, there are several common indicators that someone is struggling with meaning. It’s also important to remember that the symptoms of some mental health conditions can mimic the signs of an existential crisis. 

Depression

Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness may signal that you’re unsure of your place in the world. A lack of energy, irritability, and a loss of interest in things you used to care about may also be present.   

Anxiety

Often, existential despair and uncertainty about the future can lead to worry, nervousness, and other feelings related to anxiety.

Isolation

An existential crisis may lead to questions about relationships that cause you to distance yourself from loved ones or avoid social situations. 

Lack of direction

Struggling to understand the right path to take in order to live a meaningful life may create frustration and make you wonder what your purpose is.

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What triggers an existential crisis?

While an existential crisis is often the result of a change in a person’s life, it can also come from feeling as though things aren’t changing enough. Below are some common triggers for an existential crisis. 

Feeling stuck

The existential theory believes that humans have the freedom to choose their meaning and existence. However, in modern society, many of us go through times in life when we don’t seem to be moving forward, whether that means trying new things, progressing in our careers, or developing healthy relationships. This can create tension if it causes us to wonder whether our present situation is all there is to life, leading to a sense of a meaningless life.

Addressing an existential crisis

When you have existential depression or anxiety, it can be challenging. Questioning what matters in the world can be a good thing, but it can also affect your mental health, leading to negative consequences or even suicidal thoughts. The following are several ways to work through an existential crisis. 

Embrace uncertainty

First, accept that life can be tenuous and that some things are out of your control. Embracing uncertainty can be difficult, but it may help you question things less when you feel stressed.

Create your own meaning

It can be hard to find the meaning of life by looking for answers. Try creating your own set of beliefs and values to live by. Having a philosophy to follow based on your values can help provide you with direction. After all, creating your own meaning and purpose is the basis for existentialism

Follow your bliss

In uncertain times, it can help to do what makes you happy. Find meaning in the things that bring you joy in life and try to eliminate negative influences. This can help you nurture your passions and give you purpose in your own life.

Seek professional help

If your existential crisis is causing significant distress or leading to other mental health challenges, consider seeking therapy. A therapist can help you explore your thoughts and feelings, resolve existential crises, and address potential substance use related to coping with your struggles.

Take inventory of your positive qualities

List your most endearing assets and decide on how best you can apply these positive attributes towards a more fulfilling life. This can help you experience the importance of your purpose through the impact it has on others while also helping you shift your mindset in a positive direction. 

Practice mindfulness

Slowing down and paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings can help you become more attuned to your needs. Mindfulness involves fostering a sense of presence, which may be missing if you’re worried about the future or life changes that happened in the past. To practice mindfulness, sit or lie quietly in a comfortable position while breathing deeply. Draw your attention to what you’re feeling and thinking, as well as what you’re experiencing in your environment. Allow thoughts to enter and leave your head without judging them. By staying present, you may be able to focus more on what you have in life and less on what’s missing. 

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Finding fulfillment with therapy

Research shows that online therapy can help address mental health conditions that may be associated with an existential crisis, such as depression. In a study on the efficacy of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in a clinical setting, researchers tracked the symptoms of over 1,200 patients and found that treatment led to significant effects. Behavioral therapy helps individuals reframe negative thought patterns, like those that can cause people to question their purpose in life or their place in the world.   

If you’d like help processing complex emotions related to depression, an existential crisis, or another mental health challenge, consider utilizing an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Besides CBT, existential therapy and a wide range of methods can also be used to address your existential crisis. If you’re struggling to leave home or aren’t ready to talk to a therapist face to face, you can participate in therapy remotely, through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging. BetterHelp is an affordable option, with subscriptions starting at $65 to $100 per week (based on factors such as your location, referral source, preferences, therapist availability and any applicable discounts or promotions that might apply). With the right support, you can work through times in your life when you’re unsure what to do next. Read below for reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Therapist reviews

"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. 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."

https://www.betterhelp.com/dan-kimball/#testimonials

"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!”

Takeaway

Existential crises can come during pivotal times in our lives or when we feel stuck or unfulfilled. If you’re questioning your purpose or searching for meaning in life, consider reaching out to an experienced mental health professional. A licensed therapist can guide you as you navigate obstacles and move forward in life.

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