Understanding Existential Theory Concepts In Therapy

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Like psychology, the field of philosophy helps people better understand the world, consider their place in it, make better decisions, and experience their lives in the healthiest way possible. Existential therapy is an example of how the two disciplines overlap to achieve similar positive outcomes and can help manage mental health symptoms. 

According to the APA, in practice, existential therapy is “a form of psychotherapy that deals with the here and now of the client’s total situation rather than with his or her past or underlying dynamics.

It emphasizes the exploration and development of meaning in life, focuses on emotional experiences and decision making, and stresses a person’s responsibility for his or her own existence.” Viktor Frankl, Irvin Yalom, and Friedrich Nietzsche all explored the subject of existentialism in their work.

The philosophical idea of existential therapy aims to empower people to create their own meaning and to live meaningful lives until their death. Psychologists who practice existential therapy use this therapy to teach their clients to understand how their unique perspectives and identities apply to everyday decisions to improve their well-being.

Existential therapy has a foundation that is based upon the philosophical beliefs that:

  • Self-awareness is possible for everyone. 
  • Our unique identities can best be understood through our relationships with others. 
  • Life is in constant flux; therefore, people must continually change, too. 
  • Anxiety and stress are normal realities of life for all humans. 

Learn more about how existential therapy works

Existential psychotherapeutic applications

Existential anxiety

Existential therapy creates a strategy for treating stress and anxiety based on existentialist concepts. It approaches stress and anxiety as a typical, and sometimes necessary, part of the human experience rather than an emotional problem that they need to eliminate. Even so, these feelings of anxiety can sometimes feel so overwhelming that they inhibits our ability to function as necessary in the world.

An existential therapist develops solutions to these difficulties by giving their patients medical advice to achieve positive psychological outcomes such as a more manageable, balanced level of stress and reduced anxiety.

Personal power

This concept of personal power in existential therapy recognizes the innate capacity of the individual to choose their actions. In existential therapy, one of the therapeutic goals is to increase self-awareness to examine your situation more clearly, become more aware of your existential power, and begin to make better choices as a result.

Personal identity

Personal identity is an important factor in the existential approach. When you understand yourself well, you can understand how to better take care of your mental health. Through introspection and talking with others, you can consider what the specific things are that make you uniquely you.

Conversely, when you remain unaware of your true self, you may unconsciously repeat these unhealthy patterns.

In existential therapy, your counselor can help guide you on this journey to self-understanding and self-acceptance with an existential focus by practicing both active listening and reflective listening. The first answers you might have to this question of identity may be physical attributes like the color of your hair, your height, and your age. Other answers that may come are your occupation, your marital status, and what town or city you live in. These answers may or may not have much meaning for you.

Personal freedom

Freedom and responsibility go hand and hand and once we are free to make our own choices, we also are responsible for the consequences. 

Knowing we have the free will to make our own decisions makes us feel more in control and can increase self-motivation and self-respect. For some, the revelation comes in the idea that even if the situation is unpleasant, they understand they have chosen to stay in the situation for a conscious reason and not because of an inhibited ability to leave it.

Feelings of powerlessness subside when you know that it's your choice to be in the situation, and as a result, you accept what comes more easily.

Choices can be difficult

Existential therapy and theory recognize the difficulty of making important life choices. Therapists who use this existential approach accept that conflicting ideas exist in almost every situation. Existential therapists work to help their clients find and accept life's basic paradoxes and conflicts as well, all with the goal of resolution. 

Existential therapy may be practiced in many ways, but one of the core processes is to help you determine what's meaningful to you in your unique situation and make choices based on that meaning. 

Differing perspectives

Existential therapists often examine the situations in a patient’s life that cause anxiety from many different perspectives. At some points, you'll focus on what the situation is like for you as an individual. At other times, you might consider what it means from the potential perspective of the other people in your orbit or even in a larger scope. 

Learn more about how existential therapy works

Relating to others

Existential therapy often assumes that authentic relationships with others help us live in meaningful ways. An existential therapist will likely encourage their patients to practice authenticity with others to better understand themselves. At the heart of the approach is the idea that who we are, and the way we decide to live, is partly based on the way we relate to others. 

In existential therapy, you examine your relationships with the other people in your life to find out what it is about those relationships you’d like to change or what you’re happy with. 


For existential philosophers, existential theory is a modality designed to address significant questions that are a part of human nature, such as "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?" Answering these questions and uncovering motivations are important parts of existential therapy, as well. When analyzed, the concepts of existentialism can be applied to large-scale humanistic difficulties, such as addiction, depression, and anxiety. 

If you’re struggling with mental health conditions or substance abuse problems, existential therapy may be a great option to help you develop the skills you need to cope with them now and in the future. Some patients prefer to speak with an existential therapist in person, but online therapy is becoming a popular choice for patients. 

You can use platforms like BetterHelp to find a therapist who has mental health training and who is experienced in a wide range of methods, including existential therapy as well as other forms of therapy like humanistic therapy or brief therapies. Speaking to a therapist online makes it easier and more convenient to get help anytime from anywhere with an internet connection. 

Read below for a review of a BetterHelp therapist from someone experiencing different existential issues.

BetterHelp therapist review

"Kristen helps me to see my life and myself from a different perspective. I tell her about my experiences and she can hone into another side of the story that I couldn't get working things out on my own. And I had tried, for a very long time. As someone particularly skeptical of counseling in general, it has been refreshing to speak and work with someone who genuinely recognizes that I am seeking help but is reluctant to take it. Her patience and consistent inquiry have been the greatest asset for me and I appreciate my time with her."

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