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, or wondered about the meaning of life and whether we may be living up to our potential. Depending on your stage in life and circumstances, asking deeper questions on aspects of life is expected.
However, when these uncertainties pose difficulties in your everyday life, or feel especially urgent or persistent, they can become overwhelming. An existential crisis refers to the point when our depressed, unsatisfied, or negative thoughts may have manifested themselves as anxiety or another true mental health issue that may require professional help.
Existential crisis in Philosophy
Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, both influential philosophers, explored existential crises in their works. They believed that grappling with profound questions of existence and meaning leads to a state of crisis. Confronting this crisis is essential for personal growth and developing an authentic self. Embracing uncertainties and complexities can lead to spiritual transformation and forging one's unique path in life. These ideas challenge traditional notions of morality and encourage a self-affirming approach to life, inspiring individuals to confront their existential struggles and find their authentic paths in a world without predetermined meaning.
While philosophically, an existential crisis may be inspiring for people to face down challenges, but in the everyday life of current human experience, it may be crippling — even Barbie worries that her life has a lack of meaning in the new Hollywood blockbuster!
Symptoms of an existential crisis
How can you tell whether what you're experiencing is, in fact, an existential crisis? Symptoms may be emotional, cognitive, or have behavioral components. Here are common signs that you may be experiencing an existential crisis:
- Feeling overwhelmed or panicked about death is a common experience during existential crises, which often involve a heightened awareness of the challenges of life and the inevitability of death. Your own mortality can be overwhelming to contemplate. Your thoughts might be like "What's the meaning 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 life or career path you have taken so far and feeling sad that things have not gone differently, or fear you are living a meaningless life. 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 distracted with worry about the loss of meaning in your life, and/or self-doubt about the choices you have made. This may lead to emotional pain, lack of motivation, panic attacks, 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 many aspects of life like a major life event or shift in your personal life. An existential crisis is akin to an identity crisis, which is a period of inner conflict and confusion experienced by people, often during adolescence or significant life transitions, involving questioning and exploring their sense of self, values, and beliefs.
Often balancing self-imposed critiques and the expectations of modern society can lead to conflicted emotions and an unclear perspective whether you have followed a typical path of human experience or made mistakes along the way. An existential crisis involves questioning the meaning of life from an individual's perspective.
Here are a few reasons that people experience existential crises:
- You recently entered a new life phase. People often change or ask deeper questions of life as they approach a new stage in life. The following are all examples of individuals who might find themselves asking existential questions about who they are, and what is their meaning in life.
- Sophomore or teenage crisis — A teenage crisis refers to a period of identity exploration, uncertainty, and stress experienced by some individuals during their teenage years or sophomore year of high school (sophomore crisis). It often involves questioning one's identity, future goals, and social belonging, leading to emotional challenges and a search for self-discovery.
- Quarter-life crisis — A quarter-life crisis is a period of uncertainty and anxiety experienced by some individuals in their mid-20s to early 30s, often related to career, relationships, and life goals. This often goes with finishing college.
- Midlife crisis — A mid-life crisis is a phase of self-doubt, reflection, and emotional turmoil that some individuals experience typically around their 40s or 50s, often triggered by feelings of aging, mortality, reassessment of making choices in life, and what may give them more meaning to life going forward.
- You experienced a change in social relationships or family roles. Significant relational changes and aspects of life, 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.
- When individuals question their career path, whether it involves leaving a current job, pursuing a new one, or exploring an entirely different career, the search for meaning and a sense of belonging in work often becomes a significant aspect 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 identity and finding meaningful life.
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
Existential crises can affect an individual's behavior in unusual ways and sometimes lead to positive effects, helping them transition to a deeper understanding of life. If you are currently facing challenges, you may want to consider the following options:
Existential therapy for 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 feelings of 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 existential anxiety/depression that may accompany existential crises.
What to look for in an existential psychotherapist
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
There is no typical path when it comes to therapy. Therapists differ in their approach to treating existential crises, although they all are looking to help you find more or new meaning to life. 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 people 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.