Feeling uncertain about the course of your life is normal, and even rational to a certain extent. We’ve all wondered at times whether we’re making the right choices about our careers and partners.
However, when these difficulties feel especially urgent or persistent, they can become overwhelming. An existential crisis refers to the point when our anxious, depressed, unsatisfied, or negative thoughts may have manifested themselves as true mental health issues that may require professional help.
Symptoms of an existential crisis
How can you tell whether what you're experiencing is, in fact, an existential crisis? Here are common signs that you may be experiencing an existential crisis:
- You feel overwhelmed or panicked about death. Existential crises often include an increased awareness of the difficulty of life or even the reality of death. Your own mortality can be overwhelming to contemplate. Your thoughts might be along the lines of "What's the point of life if I'm doomed to die?"
- You're sad or remorseful about things you cannot change. You might find yourself dwelling on the path you have taken in your own life so far and feeling sad that things have not gone differently. For example, you may wish you had taken a different career path or ended up with a different romantic partner. This may lead to, or correspond with, mental health concerns like depression.
- You're worrying much more than you normally do. You may be unusually preoccupied with worry about leading a meaningless life, and/or self-doubt about the choices you have made. This may lead to severe anxiety, suicidal thoughts, or other mental health conditions.
Causes of an existential crisis
Not sure what might have prompted your existential crisis? It could be related to a major change in life events or shift in your personal life.
Here are a few reasons that people experience existential crises:
- You recently entered a new life phase. People in the following life stages are all examples of individuals who might find themselves questioning who they are, and what is their life’s purpose: finishing college, entering quarter-life, entering middle-life, or retiring evoke a later life crisis
- You experienced a change in social relationships or family roles. Significant relational changes, such as the following, might lead to an existential crisis: getting married, going through a breakup, having a new baby, having one’s children leave home (empty nesting), the death of a family member or loved one.
- You're questioning your career path. Whether leaving an old job, taking on a new one, or considering a new career altogether, finding meaning and belonging in work can be a major theme of an existential crisis.
- You're living in a new place. Particularly for those immigrating to a new country, the process of moving and adapting to a new community might connect to crises around meaning and identity.
Certain life events like battling cancer or a serious illness or life choices like coping with life-threatening illness like substance abuse may also be a cause of existential anxiety and concern for immediate help.
What to do if you’re experiencing an existential crisis
If you’re experiencing the kinds of challenges described above, consider the following options:
Therapy for existential depression
Find a therapist who can help you navigate challenging changes and life circumstances. By investigating your concerns, you can gain a better understanding of your existential despair, those aspects that may trigger anxiety (or other mental health issues), and how to overcome an existential crisis. See more tips below on selecting a therapist.
Keeping a written record of your thoughts and feelings around your existential dilemma or challenges may help you clarify your questions about your identity, obsessive thoughts or pessimistic ideas, and how to find inherent meaning in your life. Through a gratitude journal, you may expose admirable qualities that have a positive impact on your inner joy.
Meditation or mindfulness practices
You can experiment with meditation or other mindfulness practices through classes or apps. Studies have shown that these practices can help reduce the symptoms of stress and the personal sense of anxiety/depression that may accompany existential crises.
What to look for in a therapist for existential crises
You can work with a therapist to treat your existential angst. When you're starting your search for help, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Look for a therapist who has a specialty in working with clients in similar situations
Therapists differ in their approaches to treating existential crises. Common approaches include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Existential Therapy
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Psychodynamic Therapy
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
- Mindfulness Practices
Helpful questions to ask
These questions may prove helpful when interviewing a potential mental health professional:
- What therapy type (Possibly one of the examples above) do you use when helping clients manage anxiety in relation to existential concerns?
- Do you have experience working with clients who have my particular symptoms?
Prioritize personal fit
While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”
On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:
- Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist to find answers?
- Does their approach provide direction and suit my personality for overall and individual perspective?
- Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?
Additionally, consider these factors:
- Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
- Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
- Some use specific techniques or tools (talk therapy, exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
- Some use a combination of multiple approaches.
Consider cost, location, and scheduling
Therapy will only work if it works for you. Before making an appointment, ask yourself honestly:
- Can I afford the session fees? The cost of therapy depends on location, practitioner, and whether you’re using insurance.
- Can I commit to attending sessions regularly? Remember to account for travel time, and other demands in your schedule.
- Do the therapists’ available times work for me? Some therapists offer evening and weekend appointments, or online therapy, if you have an otherwise limited schedule.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.