What Is an Existential Crisis and How You Know You Are Having One?
“What is the purpose of life?”
“Does my life have meaning?”
“Why do I exist?”
If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, accompanied by an intense feeling that existence is meaningless, then you could be on the brink of an existential crisis.
What Is an Existential Crisis?
An existential crisis consists of persistent, intrusive questions about the triviality and meaninglessness of life. The term originated from the philosophical concept existentialism, which highlights an individual’s responsibility to determine the meaning of their own life through one’s free will to choose.
Existentialist thinkers believe they have the ability to attribute meaning to human existence. This morphs into an existential crisis upon viewing life as irrational or senseless. In some ways, it is similar to a mid-life crisis combined with depression and anxiety. When someone experiences meaninglessness, a loss of identity, anxiety over imminent death, or regret, it could be the start of an existential crisis.
There are several themes in existentialism: therefore, these same themes help categorize types and manifestations of existential crises.
Signs and Symptoms of an Existential Crisis
The emotions experienced during an existential crisis are normal. Almost everyone has contemplated their life’s decisions, questioned their relationships, and second guessed their goals. However, when even normal emotions become persistent and overwhelming, they can easily morph into an existential crisis.
An existential crisis presents with psychological signs and symptoms including:
- Anxiety—Uncontrolled panic and worry over matters of life and death (i.e. career or relationship choices, threats of illness, natural disasters, etc.)
- Depression—Sadness and remorse over choices made
- Fatigue—Extreme tiredness from attempting to create meaning
- Preoccupied with death—Increased awareness if life’s difficulties
- Lack of motivation—Neglecting responsibilities because life lacks meaning; asking, “What’s the point of life?”
Who is at Risk?
Any major life event can lead to an existential crisis. This includes positive occasions like getting married, having children, or turning 40 years old. However, traumatic events are also related to the onset of an existential crisis. For example, a divorce, the death of a loved one, abuse, neglect, or illness. Guilt, anger, low self-esteem, and other strong emotions are known to provoke a crisis.
Adults are more likely to exhibit an existential crisis, as they have the mental capacity to ponder the complexities of life. According to researcher Mary Andrews, existential crises occur in stages:
- Sophomore Existential Crisis—Manifests during the transition to adulthood
- Adult Existential Crisis—Begins in the late 20s and focuses on questions of relationships, identity, and career
- Later Existential Crisis—The second half of adult life is the prime age range for the later crisis, and the concept of mortality is prominent
Types of Existential Crises: Meaning of Life
A main theme of existentialism is questioning whether life has meaning. People find meaning in various parts of their lives such as religion, the love of family and friends, or passion. They seek to create meaning by pursuing an education or reaching career goals.
If unable to create meaning, an existential crisis occurs because life does not feel worth living. Someone in an existential crisis if meaning often questions, “What is the meaning of life? Why do I exist?” They worry they will not positively impact the world.
Types of Existential Crises: Death, Illness, and Mortality
Subjects of life and death arise during an existential crisis. Mortality is a particular concern with age. As we progress through the stages of life, turning a certain age, graying hair, developing wrinkles, or illness are all evidence that life is quickly passing us by. The unknown is frightening, as some fear not having adequate time to accomplish their goals. They do not know what awaits them after death.
Types of Existential Crises: Freedom and Responsibility
Freedom and responsibility are based on the premise that every person has their own beliefs, values, and aspirations. Regardless of societal standards, we are responsible for finding meaning and making decisions. While that personal freedom is a privilege, it is simultaneously distressing because we are also responsible for the outcomes of our behaviors and decisions.
Types of Existential Crises: Connectedness and Isolation
Connectedness is forming relationships, whereas isolation is being separate from people. Humans require both. Bonding with others fulfills the basic need of support, love, and learning essential social behavior. Isolation, however, allows an individual to find their identity outside of a group. Who are they? What is their passion? What gives their life meaning? When connectedness and isolation do not exist in balance, we easily lose ourselves.
Types of Existential Crises: Authenticity
Existentialism emphasizes that we all need to be true to ourselves. Pretending to be someone we are not is inauthentic. Having to make a decision that goes against personal beliefs is an example of a situation that may result in an existential crisis of authenticity. The crisis can be used for good if the crisis encourages an individual to follow a path of truth.
Types of Existential Crises: Emotions and Existence
Emotions are an essential aspect of life. Happiness or sadness, thriving or suffering, feelings demand to be felt. Avoiding negative emotions leads to discontentment. While ignoring them seems like the better option in the moment, they create a false sense of happiness. Eventually, negative emotions will come to the surface as discontentment.
Existential Depression and Anxiety
Depression is a mental disorder characterized by unexplained sadness lasting longer than two weeks. Other symptoms of depression are a loss of interest in usual activities, tiredness, hopelessness, and insomnia. Anxiety is another mental disorder that frequently coincides with depression and causes excessive worry about everyday situations.
Although depression and anxiety exist alone in many individuals, existential depression and anxiety are mental disorders that stem from an existential crisis. Famous psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom (1980) states four existential issues that provoke this form of depression and anxiety. These are death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Being unable to find meaning in life is at the heart of existential depression and anxiety. The thoughts associated with existential depression and anxiety differ in typical depression in that they are always centered around life’s lack of meaning and confronting death.
Existential Crisis and Suicide
Suicide is an unfortunate potential reality in those with existential depression and anxiety. The hyperawareness of death is to blame for this complication. If someone is constantly questioning their purpose, and viewing life with frivolity, death may seem like the only escape. It is imperative to speak to a therapist if having thoughts of suicide.
Existential Crisis Treatment
An existential crisis can be life-threatening if not managed. With proper treatment, the thoughts and feelings related to an existential crisis can positively impact one’s life for the better. It may provide them with a sense of direction or even be helpful in establishing a clear identity. The treatment for an existential crisis begins with using the unproductive thoughts to find meaning in life.
This can be accomplished by:
- Journaling—Write down daily gratitudes
- Talking to a friend—Do not remain isolated from friends and family. Share thoughts and concerns with them.
- Find a passion—Look for hobbies or projects that increase feelings of productivity. For example, engage in volunteer work, join a club, or participate in a new sport or activity.
- Reframe thoughts—Alter any negative thoughts. Instead of “My life is meaningless,” say, “My life has meaning when I _____.”
There are professional treatment options for an existential crisis too.
Existential therapy is a common treatment for an existential crisis. The therapy is client-centered. Rather than a professional therapist examining all factors in the client’s life, the client chooses which topics to discuss in the therapy session. The therapist listens to the client while formulating a plan to overcome the crisis by discovering life’s meaning. When the client proposes questions, the therapist clarifies their questions in such a way that the client arrives at the answer themselves. In existential therapy, the client works out their own problem.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Existential therapy is not sufficient for every person during an existential crisis. Some benefit from a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) identifies thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs and then analyzes how cognitive distortions effect behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is most successful for those who experience existential depression and anxiety from their existential crisis. A unique component to cognitive behavioral therapy for an existential crisis is the Existential Crisis Assessment. The assessment measures the level of severity of an existential crisis through
Andrews, M. (2016). The existential crisis. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 21(1), 104-109. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bdb0000014
Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.