Existential Therapy

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated June 20, 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.

Many people associate the term “existential” with the field of philosophy rather than psychotherapy. But existential therapy is a valid form of psychotherapy that can provide positive benefits for people with mental health challenges and those who experience an existential crisis. Its basis is generally to find meaning and purpose through self-actualization and self-understanding in therapy. Existential therapy may focus on the future while using the past as a tool, develop self-awareness, promote freedom, teach individual responsibility, help clients take meaningful action, and encourage a positive attitude which can help clients to live more meaningful lives. If you’d like to try existential therapy for yourself, you may connect with a therapist specializing in this type of treatment in person or through an online therapy platform.

Existential therapy may help you cope with life’s challenges

The foundation of existential thought

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard suggested that mental conditions could only be adequately resolved by developing internal wisdom, and that suffering was an inherent quality of the human condition. This philosophy laid the foundation of existential thought, which continued to develop into the 20th century. Since then, existential psychologists like Irvin Yalom and Viktor Frankl, have often sought to put this existential philosophy to use in helping people with both personal growth and recovery from mental health problems. While existential thought typically utilizes expanded and refined wisdom from its philosophy to arrive at a specific set of existential concepts, existential psychotherapy focuses generally on techniques used in practical ways to help people overcome mental health conditions. Humanistic psychology is a therapeutic process that is very similar at its core to existential psychology. The one key difference is that a humanistic therapist views humans as inherently good while existential therapists believe that human beings are neither good nor bad. Both humanistic therapy and existential therapy consider the human as a whole and seek to finding meaning and purpose for clients.

Conditions treated with existential therapy

Therapists with mental health training in existential techniques frequently work with clients to treat the symptoms associated with conditions like depression, anxiety, addictions, and PTSD. The goal is usually to use the existential approach to find a healthy way for clients to cope with the fear, isolation, grief, and hopelessness that can accompany these conditions.


Human experience and existential psychotherapy

Existential therapy usually recognizes that life can come with common challenges that do not necessarily constitute chronic psychological problems. For most, these existential challenges are simply a part of the human experience. To enjoy existential freedoms within the context of our inner life and relationships, we typically must face those challenges as part of our experience. The existential theory also suggests all individuals can obtain self-awareness through life-altering experiences. Each of us is unique, and it may be through our relationships and self-directed choices that we understand what is unique about ourselves. The philosophy recognizes that while people may find existential meaning at some points, the world may continue to change, as may the individuals living in it. 

Intrapsychic conflicts

According to the existential therapy model, the anxiety many people feel may stem from underlying factors called intrapsychic conflicts. The APA defines intrapsychic conflict as “the clash of opposing forces within the psyche, such as conflicting drives, wishes, or agencies.” 

For example, a person who smokes cigarettes may want to quit for their health’s sake, but if they enjoy taking cigarette breaks at work as a reward for completing tasks, this may cause an intrapsychic conflict and feelings of anxiety. In this case, an existential therapist may work with the patient to isolate the origins of both those thoughts and behaviors to reconcile them as part of the healing process, especially in substance abuse treatment. 

Existential anxiety

Even though many of us experience similar difficulties in life, sometimes, intrapersonal conflict may become so overwhelming that it can hinder our ability to make decisions or create change if needed. This inhibited ability may cultivate strong feelings of powerlessness, which may result in intense feelings of anxiety that can negatively impact our daily functioning. Existential therapies generally aim to reduce these feelings by encouraging patients to face their fears and act in ways that promote well-being. The goal is usually to relieve symptoms of anxiety through these positive actions.

Existential awareness

Although theoretically, we may all have the capacity for existential self-awareness, not everyone may follow that strategy for resolving inner conflict. For many reasons, some may find themselves focusing on things that distract from intrapsychic conflict. 

One of the ultimate concerns and goals of existential therapy is often to create more inner awareness. As we become more aware, we can choose to act in ways that may increase our understanding of our foundational mental health issues. The belief behind this method is that the more we understand in an existential sense, the easier it may be to make wiser choices.

Existential balance

Existential therapy doesn’t generally seek to eliminate all sources or feelings of anxiety. The belief behind this therapy is often that those feelings can be normal and sometimes necessary for humans. But at the same time, intense feelings of anxiety can paralyze us, leading to inaction. For existential therapists, the solution to this conflict may not be the complete elimination of stress, but the achievement of a balanced level of stress. 

Focusing on upcoming decisions

Existential psychotherapy often focuses on the future. As you continue therapy, you’ll likely gain wisdom that will prepare you for making life decisions in the present moment and later on.

Ilona Titova/EyeEm
Existential therapy may help you cope with life’s challenges

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 usually the focus. Instead, exploring your past can serve two purposes. First, it’s usually meant to help you understand yourself better as a unique person. Second, you may 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 goal of existential psychotherapy can be to increase your self-awareness. Currently, you may focus more on others than on your own sensations, thoughts, and beliefs. Through this existential therapeutic modality, you may shift the relational context from others to yourself and learn to notice what is happening within your body and mind to reflect on what is beneficial for you. 

While this may sound like a selfish practice, existential therapists typically believe it is a healthy perspective on human existence. When you take care of your own needs, you generally do not have to depend on others for contentment. Also, existential therapy often functions using the idea that when we feel more satisfied with our lives, we may also become more genuine and caring people who may be better able to help others when needed.

Promoting freedom

At the core of existential therapy can be the belief that everyone has the ability to choose their actions in their own lives. Guiding patients to a better understanding and acceptance of their freedom is one of the ways that existential therapists may treat them.  

Developing personal responsibility and accepting freedom can be highly self-motivating, however, for some, existential freedom can seem frightening. In these cases, the therapist may help the patient work on balancing their feelings of anxiety as they become more aware of their freedom to choose. 

Teaching individual responsibility

Existential psychotherapy also frequently works with the idea that freedom usually comes with responsibility. An existential therapist can help you identify the responsibilities associated with the freedoms you have in life and teach you how to accept responsibility for your actions without becoming overwhelmed by a sense of burden.

For instance, if a student is responsible for keeping their grades up, but their freedom of choice drives them to go out instead of study, it can cause conflict and stress. A therapist may help the student come to terms with their responsibility without feeling like they are sacrificing their freedoms completely. This will likely alleviate a large portion of the stress associated with the conflict.

Taking meaningful action

Existential psychotherapy can be viewed as a form of psychotherapy or talk therapy. But in addition to exploring the existential roots of your difficulties, your existential psychotherapist may prompt you to follow insight with action. Through this values-based action, the goal is usually to acquire the knowledge needed to outwardly become the best possible version of yourself and lead a meaningful life.

Encouraging a positive attitude

Existential therapists generally aim to help their patients cultivate greater happiness by identifying and acknowledging the intrapsychic conflicts and human limitations that may be holding them back. Essentially, after you've come to terms with these deeper issues, your therapist will likely encourage you to find freedom from them and adopt more positive attitudes as a result which develops self-respect. Therapists can also combine existential therapy with other types of therapy or mental health services as a means of helping the client find meaning, purpose, joy, and their unique path in life. 

Finding an existential therapist

If you’re interested in trying existential therapy for yourself, you may do so with a licensed mental health professional in person or online. Online therapy platforms can match those who wish to seek professional help with experienced therapists virtually, providing them with more freedom over when and where they’d like to speak to their therapist. In addition, online therapy is often less expensive than in-person therapy. 

Online therapists frequently use a wide range of methods, including existential psychotherapy, and it can be as effective as in-person therapy for treating a broad range of conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. 


If you’re considering existential therapy as a possible treatment method to help you overcome mental health challenges, it can be important to remember that, like every kind of therapy, it may not be a quick fix and will likely require effort and persistence on your part. However, many people have found that this therapy can be an effective method of treatment that resonates with their unique experiences. A few common components of existential psychotherapy can include encouraging a positive attitude, teaching individual responsibility, focusing on the future while using the past as a tool, promoting freedom, developing self-awareness, and taking meaningful action. If you’re interested in existential therapy or any other type of therapy, you may get the help you deserve by reaching out to a therapist online or in person.

Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started