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

Medically reviewed by Katrice Hollins, LCSW, LICSW
Updated January 25, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people experience moments when they question their purpose, wonder whether they’re on the right path, or otherwise examine their lives for meaning. If you’re asking similar questions right now or feeling unfulfilled, you may wonder whether you’re experiencing an existential crisis. An existential crisis can be concerning, but it can also be a good time to reevaluate parts of your life you might like to change. Below we’re going to discuss existential crises, their origins, common characteristics, and how to manage the emotions they can produce.

Are You Having Trouble Finding Meaning In Life?

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.

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

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.

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 a mental or physical health challenge. 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 may also be present.    

Anxiety

Often, 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. 

Lack Of Direction

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

What Triggers An Existential Crisis?

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

Age

As a teen or young adult, many people question their existence and whether they can make an impact on the world. This can cause an identity crisis related to what career path to go down or who they are as a person. As people get older, they may experience 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 next steps.

Change In Beliefs

Many belief systems 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. 

Feeling Stuck

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. 

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. 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 in life is the basis for existentialism

Follow Your Bliss

In uncertain times, it can help to do what makes you happy. Find 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. 

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 surrounding 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. 

Recognize, Embrace, And Express Your Feelings

For some, life seems more certain when emotions are hidden or pushed aside. But often the healthiest way to deal with emotions is to experience and embrace them. Find healthy outlets for your emotions. Express them through words, art, music, or other actions. Doing so may allow you to work through your feelings in a healthy, effective way. 

Are You Having Trouble Finding Meaning In Life?

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. CBT 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. 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 memberships starting at $60 per week (billed every 4 weeks). 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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