An existential crisis involves deep questions about your purpose in life that cause distress. Several things can help you navigate the crisis, like journaling or talking with a therapist.
But for others, negative emotions can lead to deep despair, causing them to question their place in life. This is known as an existential crisis.
The idea of an existential crisis has been studied by psychologists and psychiatrists such as Kazimierz Dabrowski and Irvin D. Yalom for decades, starting as early as 1929.
Yet even with the abundance of old and new research on the topic, you might be unfamiliar with this term, or not understand how it differs from normal anxiety and depression.
Here’s what you need to know about an existential crisis, as well as how to overcome this turning point.
“People can have an existential crisis when they start to wonder what life means, and what their purpose or the purpose to life as a whole is,” explains Katie Leikam, a licensed therapist in Decatur, Georgia, who specializes in working with anxiety, relationship stress, and gender identity. “It can be a break in thinking patterns where you suddenly want answers to life’s big questions.”
It’s not uncommon to search for meaning and purpose in your life. With an existential crisis, however, the problem lies in being unable to find satisfying answers. For some people, the lack of answers triggers a personal conflict from within, causing frustration and loss of inner joy.
An existential crisis can affect anyone at any age, but many experience a crisis in the face of a difficult situation, perhaps the struggle to succeed.
Everyday challenges and stresses may not provoke an existential crisis. This type of crisis is likely to follow deep despair or a significant event, such as a major trauma or a major loss. A few causes of an existential crisis may include:
- guilt about something
- losing a loved one in death, or facing the reality of one’s own death
- feeling socially unfulfilled
- dissatisfaction with self
- history of bottled up emotions
The different types of existential crises include:
Crisis of freedom and responsibility
You have the freedom to make your own choices, which can change your life for the better or worse. Most people prefer this freedom, as opposed to having someone make decisions for them.
But this freedom also comes with responsibility. You have to accept the consequences of the choices you make. If you use your freedom to make a choice that doesn’t end well, you can’t put the blame on anyone else.
For some, this freedom is too overwhelming and it triggers existential anxiety, which is an all-encompassing anxiety about the meaning of life and choices.
Crisis of death and mortality
An existential crisis can also strike after turning a certain age. For example, your 50th birthday may force you to confront the reality of your life being half over, leading you to question the foundation of your life.
You might reflect on the meaning of life and death, and ask questions like, “What happens after death?” Fear of what may follow death can trigger anxiety. This type of crisis can also occur after being diagnosed with a serious illness or when death is imminent.
Crisis of isolation and connectedness
Even if you enjoy periods of isolation and solitude, humans are social beings. Strong relationships can give you mental and emotional support, bringing satisfaction and inner joy. The problem is that relationships aren’t always permanent.
People can drift apart physically and emotionally, and death often separates loved ones. This can lead to isolation and loneliness, causing some people to feel that their life is pointless.
Crisis of meaning and meaninglessness
Having a meaning and purpose in life can provide hope. But after reflecting on your life, you may feel that you didn’t accomplish anything significant or make a difference. This can lead people to question their very existence.
Crisis of emotion, experiences, and embodiment
Not allowing yourself to feel negative emotions can sometimes lead to an existential crisis. Some people block out pain and suffering, thinking this will make them happy. But it can often lead to a false sense of happiness. And when you don’t experience true happiness, life can feel empty.
On the other hand, embodying emotions and acknowledging feelings of pain, discontentment, and dissatisfaction can open the door to personal growth, improving an outlook on life.
Experiencing anxiety and depression when your life is off track doesn’t always mean that you’re going through an existential crisis. These emotions, however, are tied to a crisis when accompanied by a need to find meaning in life.
Existential crisis depression
During an existential crisis, you may experience normal feelings of depression. These symptoms might include loss of interest in favorite activities, fatigue, headaches, feelings of hopelessness, and persistent sadness.
In the case of existential depression, you may also have thoughts about suicide or the end of life, or feel that your life doesn’t have purpose, Leikam says.
Hopelessness with this type of depression is deeply related to feelings of a meaningless life. You might question the purpose of it all:“Is it only to work, pay bills, and eventually die?”
Existential crisis anxiety
“Existential anxiety can present itself as being preoccupied with the afterlife or being upset or nervous about your place and plans in life,” Leikam says.
This anxiety differs from everyday stress in the sense that everything can make you uncomfortable and anxious, including your very existence. You may ask yourself, “What is my purpose and where do I fit in?”
Existential obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Sometimes, thoughts about the meaning of life and your purpose may weigh heavily on your mind and cause racing thoughts. This is known as existential OCD, and it can occur when you are obsessive or have compulsions about the meaning of life.
“It can present in the need to ask questions over and over again, or not being able to rest until you have answers to your questions,” says Leikam.
Finding your purpose and meaning in life can help you break free of an existential crisis. Here are a few tips to cope:
Take control of your thoughts
Replace negative and pessimistic ideas with positive ones. Telling yourself that your life is meaningless can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, take steps to live a more meaningful life. Pursue a passion, volunteer for a cause in which you believe, or practice being compassionate.
Keep a gratitude journal to overcome negative feelings
Your life probably has more meaning than you think. Write down everything for which you’re grateful. This might include your family, work, talents, qualities, and accomplishments.
Remind yourself of why life has meaning
Taking the time to self-explore can also help you break through an existential crisis, Leikam says.
If you have difficulty seeing the good in yourself, ask friends and family to identify your positive qualities. What positive impact have you had on their lives? What are your strongest, most admirable qualities?
Don’t expect to find all the answers
This doesn’t mean that you can’t seek answers to life’s big questions. At the same time, understand that some questions won’t have answers.
To get through an existential crisis, Leikam also suggests breaking down questions into smaller answers, and then working to become satisfied with learning the answers to the smaller questions that make up the bigger picture.
You might be able to break through an existential crisis on your own, without a doctor. But if symptoms don’t go away, or if they worsen, see a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist.
These mental health experts can help you cope with a crisis through talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a type of therapy that aims to change patterns of thinking or behavior.
Seek immediate help if you have suicidal thoughts. Keep in mind, however, you don’t have to wait until a crisis reaches this point before speaking with a doctor or other healthcare provider.
Even if you don’t have thoughts about suicide, a therapist can help with severe anxiety, depression, or obsessive thoughts.
An existential crisis can happen to anyone, leading many to question their existence and purpose in life. Despite the potential seriousness of this pattern of thinking, it is possible overcome a crisis and move past these dilemmas.
The key is understanding how an existential crisis differs from normal depression and anxiety, and getting help for any feelings or thoughts that you can’t shake.