Existential Crisis: What It Is and How to Cope

May 21, 2024

An existential crisis can throw you into a sea of questions about purpose and identity. If you’re struggling with such doubts, how do you find solid ground again? We’ll explore the symptoms, triggers, and effective strategies for steering through an existential crisis, helping you reclaim direction and meaning in your life. We'll also talk about how the therapists at Resilience Lab can help you navigate an existential crisis.

Key Takeaways

  • An existential crisis involves deep personal questioning about life’s purpose, choices, and authenticity and is triggered by meaningful life events, though not classified as a clinical medical condition.
  • Existential crises often intersect with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, making it important to address both existential concerns and concurrent mental health conditions for effective management.
  • Positive personal transformation can emerge from an existential crisis, with strategies for coping including mindfulness, building a support system, and making impactful choices aligned with personal values.

What Actually Is An Existential Crisis?

At their core, existential crises are rooted in a misalignment between values and identity. Existential crises encompass a broad range of personal existential questioning, including doubts about:

  • Purpose
  • Choice
  • Authenticity
  • Living a meaningful life

During such crises, individuals may undergo a deep reevaluation of their own lives and identities, prompting a quest for deeper understanding, purpose, and a profound connection to their own lives.

The philosophy of existentialism holds that individuals define their own existence through freely made choices. This belief emphasizes personal responsibility in resolving existential dilemmas. Although an existential crisis is not recognized as a clinical medical condition, it is often characterized by a pattern of questioning and anxiety triggered by meaningful events in one’s life.

Recognizing Symptoms of an Existential Crisis

Identifying the symptoms of an existential crisis marks the initial step towards its effective resolution. Typical symptoms encompass feelings of life’s meaninglessness, negative thought patterns, and existential anxiety. Manifestations of these feelings could include reduced motivation, low energy, decreased social engagement, alterations in daily routines, and avoiding previously pleasurable social activities.

In addition to these behavioral signs, emotional indicators of an existential crisis include feelings of futility, emptiness, anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, grief, loss, and guilt. Such emotions often stem from feeling responsible for making wrong choices in life, leading to a misalignment between one's beliefs and how one lives. Recognizing these symptoms can help you identify when you or someone you know is experiencing an existential crisis and seek the appropriate help.

Identifying Triggers

Understanding the triggers of existential crises can further equip you to manage them effectively. Existential crises often stem from a misalignment between one's values and identity. Some major life events that are known triggers for existential crises include:

  • Starting a new job or staying in a career you dislike
  • Switching careers
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Having children

Existential crises can also arise from personal losses like the death of a loved one or facing a serious illness, leading individuals to grapple with themes of meaninglessness and isolation. Career disruptions such as job loss or a significant job change can also precipitate an existential crisis, prompting a deep questioning of one’s life path and sense of identity.

Other circumstances that may trigger an existential crisis include lifestyle choices that don't align with one's true desires, such as:

  • Living in a community with different cultural values than one's own (e.g., rural vs. urban)
  • Dating the wrong type of person for you due to societal expectations, rather than personal desires
  • Following dietary habits that don't align with personal ethics (e.g., eating meat when one prefers vegetarianism)

Recognizing the diverse triggers of existential crises helps to identify and address the underlying misalignment, leading to a better understanding of oneself and the right steps toward resolution.

The Connection Between Existential Crises and Mental Health

Existential crises don’t occur in isolation; they often interplay with other mental health issues. For effective management, it’s crucial to address both existential concerns and concurrent mental health issues.

While anyone can struggle with existential crises at any time, individuals with conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder may be more prone to these crises due to the complex interplay between their mental health challenges and existential concerns. Furthermore, mental health conditions like anxiety, borderline personality disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder can heighten one’s vulnerability to existential crises. Therefore, it’s advised to seek professional help when experiencing any of the below symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Isolation
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loneliness
  • Obsessive worry

Existential Depression

Existential depression is a specific manifestation of an existential crisis. It involves profound existential thoughts that lead to deep despair.It is not yet officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Individuals experiencing existential depression often grapple with:

  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness
  • Difficulty finding meaning in life
  • Obsessing over unanswerable questions
  • Perpetual state of despair

Interestingly, existential depression is more commonly reported among gifted individuals, who may experience this form of depression due to their heightened intellectual and emotional capabilities.

Anxiety and Fear of Meaninglessness

Existential anxiety is another common aspect of an existential crisis. It is related to the ultimate boundaries in life, which include intrinsic uncertainties such as death and the role of chance.

Individuals experiencing existential anxiety often confront the fear of living a meaningless life and face the stress associated with finding or recognizing a higher purpose. This crisis of meaning stems from:

  • Seeking a profound understanding or purpose in life
  • Feeling a disconnect between everyday actions and a higher purpose
  • Desiring to make a significant contribution to discover a sense of belonging

From Crisis to Opportunity: Personal Growth Through Existential Challenges

Although an existential crisis poses significant challenges to human existence, it can also act as a catalyst for positive personal transformation and self-discovery, fostering a deeper self-understanding and cultivating a sense of purpose.

An existential crisis often drives individuals to question their purpose and reevaluate their values and life goals, which can help develop new aspirations aligned with these renewed perspectives. Navigating an existential crisis can help develop skills to manage uncertainty, build adaptability, and reach acceptance of things you cannot change. All of this can build resilience when facing new challenges.

Embracing the Crisis as a Turning Point

Perceiving an existential crisis as a life-altering juncture can trigger positive personal transformation. It encourages individuals to reassess their connection to their values, meaning, and purpose, facilitating personal growth and renewal.

The therapeutic concept of "embodiment" is highly relevant in this context. It emphasizes embodying one's values and aligning life choices with those values to achieve overall well-being. Embracing an existential crisis as a turning point often involves making significant changes in one's life to align more closely with one's true beliefs and values.

Engaging in self-reflection and contemplating the purpose of life during times of crisis allows for a pause from daily routines, offering a chance to address existential questions and gain a renewed sense of purpose. Additionally, taking ownership of one’s life choices during an existential crisis is imperative for developing empowerment and resilience.

Overall, adjusting the viewpoint of an existential crisis to an opportunity for happiness and fulfillment by reassessing life choices and values can be beneficial.

The Role of Self-Differentiation

Self-differentiation plays a significant role in navigating existential crises. It’s the ability for a person to:

  • Recognize their own thoughts and feelings
  • Respect that they are sometimes different from others
  • Provide a foundation for confidence and comfort with one’s self-identity

Signs of poor self-differentiation include:

  • Conforming to others’ demands to the detriment of personal happiness
  • Experiencing guilt or shame when attempting to set personal boundaries
  • Common struggles arising particularly in familial settings

Strengthening self-differentiation can be achieved through practical measures such as not answering family calls during work and staying composed during disagreements, which establish personal boundaries and affirm self-priority.

Ultimately, effective self-differentiation involves:

  • Balancing societal pressures and personal desires
  • Recognizing and mitigating self-suppression
  • Projecting behaviors true to one’s identity
  • Comprehensive personal growth

Strategies to Resolve Existential Crises

While it’s essential to understand and accept an existential crisis, having practical healing and coping strategies is equally critical. These strategies can include:

  • Mindfulness practices
  • Self-compassion exercises
  • Focusing on future planning
  • Maintaining a gratitude journal to highlight meaningful and joyful life aspects

Balancing life’s energy by nurturing relationships, exploring hobbies, and seeking various forms of support, including professional therapy, can alleviate feelings associated with existential crises. These strategies can provide a clearer sense of direction and purpose, making the journey through an existential crisis more manageable.

Building a Support System

Establishing a supportive network is another useful strategy for managing an existential crisis. Re-establishing connections with friends and family can provide stability during such times.

Discussing feelings with a trusted network can help individuals find stability and comfort. Sharing experiences and feelings provides comfort, validation, and the possibility to gain different perspectives from others.

Redirecting Focus to Positive Impact

Redirecting focus towards positive impact can help reconcile societal expectations with personal desires. Reconciling these expectations with personal desires can direct individuals towards making choices that have a more positive impact on their lives and those of others.

This redirection of focus can help individuals derive a sense of purpose and meaning in life, aiding in the resolution of an existential crisis. It’s about making choices that align with one’s true character and beliefs while contributing positively to the world around them.

Making Changes In Your Life

Making changes in your life to align your identity, values, and behavior is essential for addressing an existential crisis. For example, this might include:

  • Changing your career to pursue a more fulfilling path
  • Moving to a place that aligns with your lifestyle and cultural values
  • Ending relationships that no longer support your growth
  • Adopting habits that reflect your ethical beliefs, such as dietary changes or volunteering

Such changes help embody one's true self and bring alignment between beliefs and daily life.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.

Practicing Radical Acceptance

Even after making the necessary changes to embody your best self, existential feelings may persist. This is when it's essential to practice radical acceptance. Radical acceptance involves acknowledging life as it is and embracing the present moment, despite imperfections or unresolved issues. Choosing to accept life and find happiness in the present helps alleviate the distress of existential dilemmas and fosters a sense of peace.

When to Seek Professional Help For Existential Anxiety or Crisis

Although self-help strategies can aid in managing existential crises, there are times when seeking professional help is necessary. A therapist can be invaluable in helping individuals explore their values, align them with their day-to-day actions, and find greater satisfaction with themselves and their lives. Professional guidance can provide clarity and insight that may be difficult to achieve alone, regardless of the severity of symptoms. Engaging with a therapist allows for a structured exploration of personal beliefs and offers support in navigating life's challenges, making it beneficial for anyone experiencing existential anxiety or crisis.

Substance abuse may also signal an attempt to manage the difficult emotions and thoughts stemming from an existential crisis and indicates the need for professional assistance. In these cases, a therapist or counselor can create a safe space for individuals to explore their feelings and gain new insights, which is especially important if the crisis leads to depression or anxiety.

The team of therapists at Resilience Lab can help you navigate thoughts of existential depression, anxiety, or crisis with a personalized care plan for your specific situation.

Identifying the Need for Therapy

Recognizing when therapy is needed is a key step in managing an existential crisis. Extended periods of despair may require therapeutic intervention to help navigate the crisis.

Persistent negative thoughts and the inability to find joy in activities that once were pleasurable can be signs that the feeling of despair is not a fleeting emotional state, but something that requires professional attention. Additionally, struggling with routine responsibilities, such as work, personal hygiene, or maintaining social relationships, indicates a level of distress that therapy could help alleviate.

Living Authentically in Modern Society

Maintaining authenticity in today’s society can be challenging, yet it is an essential component of managing an existential crisis. Authentic living, which involves staying true to one’s values, can enhance self-confidence and enrich relationships.

A society that enables authenticity can enable people to have open discussions about diverse viewpoints, creating spaces to address and solve problems collectively. However, individuals often confront the challenge of adhering to their authenticity when societal norms impose expectations that can lead to conformity and superficial connections.

Balancing Expectations and Authentic Desires

Achieving authenticity requires a careful balance. Often, societal expectations can clash with individuals’ genuine desires.

Societal pressures to look a certain way, achieve certain milestones, and follow a predefined path can lead to existential crises early in life, such as in teenage years.

Therapy may help when one experiences:

  • Feelings of being torn between progression and stagnation
  • Feeling isolated
  • Feeling trapped
  • Feeling incompatible with societal expectations

Navigating Social Relationships

Social interactions play a critical role in shaping our identities and the sense of purpose we derive from our relationships and community involvement. Authentically navigating social relationships involves fostering connections rooted in honesty and allowing the expression of genuine identities.

It is important to assess friendships in terms of whether they facilitate one’s own self-differentiation. You may benefit from reevaluating friendships in which you feel pressured or judged for not conforming. The healthiest friendships  are supportive and encourage personal growth and pursuit of individual interests.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an existential crisis?

An existential crisis involves deep personal questioning about purpose, choice, and living a meaningful life. It can happen during significant life transitions or after personal losses.

What are the symptoms of an existential crisis?

If you are experiencing an existential crisis, you may have feelings of a meaningless life, negative thoughts, and anxiety about your existence. You might also experience decreased motivation, low energy levels, and withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities.

How is an existential crisis linked to mental health?

Existential crises may be linked to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and OCD. It's important to address both existential concerns and mental health issues together for effective management and resolution.

What are some strategies to manage an existential crisis?

To manage an existential crisis, consider engaging in spiritual practices, building a support system, redirecting focus to positive impact, or maintaining a gratitude journal. If the crisis leads to severe symptoms or persistent distress, seek professional help.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

Get started with therapy today.

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