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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Focus On Upcoming Decisions
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.
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.
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.
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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?
Do you want to find a therapist that offers services in existential counseling? Your primary care physician may have a list of suggestions for you. You can also find a therapist near you via a quick online search.
In the context of group therapy, using methods from existential psychology can be beneficial for all participating members. If the group perceives the therapist as a fellow traveler in life, they can learn effective methods for grappling with feelings of loneliness or meaninglessness.
Existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom published a book titled Existential Psychotherapy in December of 1980. Drawing from years of clinical experience and research, Yalom offers helpful information on the existential-humanistic approach to psychology, different existential psychotherapies, and existential concerns that humans experience in his book Existential Psychotherapy. To this day, many students still study his book Existential Psychotherapy.