Existential Therapy

By Julia Thomas|Updated June 21, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Fawley , LPC

What do you think of when you hear the word "existential"? For many people, the word may elicit negative feelings. Yet, this feeling has little to do with the true nature of existential-humanistic therapy. Existential therapy is a valid form of psychotherapy that can provide positive benefits for people with mental health disorders. Its basis is on finding meaning and purpose. Before you can determine whether existential therapy is right for you, it helps to know what it is and how it works.

Existential Thought

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Feeling Lost And Like You Can't Make Sense Of The World?

Humanistic Existential Therapy

Long ago, Soren Kierkegaard suggested that mental conditions could only be adequately dealt with by developing internal wisdom. This existential philosophy laid the foundation of existential thought. Since then, existentia; psychologists have sought to put this existential philosophy to use helping people recover from mental health problems.

Therapy Or Philosophy?

While there are some similarities between existential philosophy and existential therapy, the latter is indeed a type of psychotherapy. Existential thought relies on wisdom from the philosophy, but expands it and refines it to a specific set of existential concepts. Existential therapy focuses on techniques that can be used in practical ways to help people overcome their deepest issues.

Conditions Treated

Therapists can use existential techniques to help people with a variety of mental health conditions. These existential methods face issues like depression, anxiety, addictions, and PTSD that may arise from life-threatening experiences. In addition, if you experience fear, isolation, grief, or feel that your life has no meaning, existential therapy may be an effective method for helping you deal with these issues. With this type of existential therapy, you can find a healthy way forward by learning from your past and present experiences and deciding from that information what you can choose next.

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Human Experience

Existential therapy recognizes that life comes with certain mental health challenges that are 'givens' for everyone alive. These existential givens are simply a part of the human experience. We all must find a way to deal with the certainty of death, sadness, and avoid isolation. If we accept existential freedom, we must also face the existential responsibility that goes along with it. Finally, we must find meaning in our existential lives to truly enjoy the time we're alive and make the most of it.

Also, existential therapy focuses on starting from a particular perspective. Existential theory views everyone as being capable of self-awareness. Each of us is unique in our way, and it is through our relationships that we understand what that uniqueness is. Although we may find existential meaning at some points, the world continues to move forward. People change, and the meaning of their lives changes, too. Lastly, because we must find an existential balance between ignorance and despair, we all deal with some amount of existential anxiety.

Intrapsychic Conflicts

The anxiety we feel stems from what existential therapists call intrapsychic conflicts. These are the deep existential issues we struggle with inside ourselves. Centuries ago, William Shakespeare put into words perhaps the central theme of our existence: "To be or not to be, that is the question." Whether we face this question or not, it is indeed a crucial question that lies at the existential core of how we choose to think, behave, and exist in the world. Other intrapersonal conflicts might be posed as:

  • Does my life have any meaning?
  • Am I free to do as I choose?
  • Am I responsible for my actions?
  • Who am I and how can I remain true to myself?
  • Is isolation better than the struggle of being in relationships?

Existential Anxiety & Therapy

We all have existential anxiety, as mentioned earlier. Intrapersonal conflicts may haunt us to the point that we lose touch with our ability to make changes. We may feel we have no power to prevent terrible things from happening, and to a certain extent, that is true. However, we can reduce the level of anxiety we feel by facing our fears and acting in ways that promote our well-being. As we do this, we create a better, happier, more fulfilling life for ourselves through our positive actions.

Existential Therapy Awareness

Although we all have the capacity for existential self-awareness, not everyone chooses this path. Many choose instead to be drawn into whatever is distracting, ignoring the intrapsychic battle that is raging within us. Through existential therapy, we can become more attuned to our inner lives. As we become more aware and existential, we can choose to do things that increase our understanding of the foundational issues at hand. The more we understand in an existential sense, the easier it is to make wiser choices.

Existential Balance

The goal of existential therapy is not to eliminate all anxiety. After all, the theory behind this therapy states that anxiety is a given for humans. If we were to get rid of all our anxieties, we might fail to do the things we need to do to survive. At the same time, too much anxiety can paralyze us so that we also do nothing. So, what is the answer? For existential therapists, the answer lies in striking a balance. When we feel some anxiety but not too much, we can move more comfortably and positively in the world.

Existential Therapy Method

The theory and ideas behind existential therapy are accepted. Yet, to someone who has never had existential therapy, they may sound a bit cerebral. Where is the practicality of existential therapy? What do existential therapists do? There are several existential therapy techniques. Your therapist may use any or all of them as they help you deal with your intrapsychic conflicts.

Focus On Upcoming Decisions

Existential therapy focuses on the future. As you go through therapy, you gain wisdom that will prepare you for decisions you have to make in the present moment, and especially later, after you have achieved balance and found your life's path.
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Feeling Lost And Like You Can't Make Sense Of The World?

Using The Past As A Tool

If you are in existential therapy, your therapist will likely guide you in reflecting on your past. Yet, in this form of therapy, the past is not the focus. Instead, exploring your past serves two purposes. First, it helps you understand yourself better as a unique person. Second, you can examine the consequences and results of the choices you've made in the past so that you can make better choices now and in the future.

Developing Self Awareness

A part of the work in existential therapy is to increase your self-awareness. Right now, you may go through life paying more attention to others than you do to your sensations, thoughts, and beliefs. Through this existential therapeutic modality, you learn to notice what is happening within your body and mind and pay more heed to your existential sense of what is beneficial for you. This may sound like a selfish practice, but existential therapists believe it is the healthiest perspective you can take. When you take care of your own needs, you do not have to rely on others totally for contentment. Also, when you feel more satisfied with your life, you become a more genuine and caring person, better able to offer existential help to others when needed.

Promoting Freedom

The very core of existential therapy is everyone's ability to choose their actions. It stands to reason, then, that existential therapists guide you to a better understanding and acceptance of your freedom. Existential freedom can be a scary thing, so your therapist will help you work on balancing your level of anxiety as you become more aware of your freedom to choose. At the same time, realizing your freedom helps you access your power and feel more alive in the process.

Teaching Individual Responsibility

It is often said that freedom comes with responsibility. An existential therapist can help you determine what you're responsible for as a consequence of your freedom. They can teach you how to accept responsibility for your actions without becoming overwhelmed by a sense of burden.

Helping You Find Meaning In Action

Existential therapy is essentially a form of talk therapy, but the goal is to choose more positive ways to behave. Your existential therapist may prompt you to follow insight with action. Through this values-based action, you can find the meaning you need to become outwardly the best possible version of yourself.

Encouraging Your Positive Attitudes

To many, existential means a negative, pessimistic, gloomy attitude. When we hear the word “existential,” many of us unconsciously attach the word “crisis” to the end of it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Once you identify and acknowledge the intrapsychic conflicts that are holding you back, you feel greater joy and a greater sense of meaning in each day that passes. So, after you've come to terms with these deeper issues, your therapist encourages you to find freedom from them and adopt more positive attitudes. In a sense, we find ways to balance the darkness of existence with the lighter side of life. Through grief comes gratitude.

Therapists typically combine existential therapy with other types of talk therapy as a means of helping the client find meaning, purpose, joy, and their unique path in life. Existential therapy recognizes that life is not just a series of unrelated and often disastrous incidents, but it is a path you walk each day of your life. Therapists who use existential therapy as one of many methods can help you find and follow a positive path for your life.

Is Existential Therapy For You?

Chances are, if you're interested in existential therapy, you're either thinking about a career as a therapist or considering whether it will help you overcome the problems and/or mental disorders you struggle with now. Existential therapy in itself is not a quick fix in most cases. However, if you're serious about finding meaning and purpose in your life, it may be beneficial for you.

Existential Therapy Can Help

Online therapy platforms, such as BetterHelp, are just as effective in treating a very broad range of conditions (including anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, phobias, and many others) as in-person therapy. Specifically, those dealing with anxiety and depression not only benefit from existential therapy but by extension experience greater benefits from online therapy, according to a University of Zurich study, over the medium- and long-term than those utilizing in-person therapy.

BetterHelp is particularly helpful in its ability to be accessed anytime, anywhere – you just need an internet connection to get started! You’ll be matched with a therapist (though you can switch at any time), and from there, sessions can be held via video chat, phone call, texting/instant messaging, or live voice recording. It’s truly a personalized and convenient experience, whether you have an incredibly busy schedule or live somewhere far away from traditional in-person counseling facilities. See below for some reviews of our board-certified therapists from people seeking to better understand themselves and their lives.

Existential Reviews

“I was initially apprehensive about starting counseling but within only a few weeks of speaking with Derylene she helped me not only understand myself better but she helped me on the road to becoming the person I always wanted to be. A truly inspirational and motivating person. Thank you for all the advice and positivity from our talks.”

“Megan was positive and a good listener. We often planned what the focus would be for the next session but I liked how she always checked in at the beginning of our session if there was anything else that came up during the week that we should handle first. I've dug some into my childhood which has helped me better understand myself, my behavior, my responses, and perspectives.”

Therapy Techniques Conclusion

Are you ready to find a therapist? At BetterHelp, you can choose from many counselors using a variety of therapy methods. Choosing the online option is convenient, private, and completely within your control. Even better, you can quickly find a therapist trained to assist your unique needs and get started right away.

Some commonly asked questions around this topic can be found below:

What is existential therapy approach?
What is the main goal of existential therapy?
What is an example of existential therapy?
What are the four givens of existential therapy?
Do existentialists believe God?
What is are some criticisms of existential therapy?
What are the three phases of existential therapy?
What are the 6 basic human conditions in existential therapy?
Who would benefit from existential therapy?
What is the central issue in existential therapy?

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