Life is filled with a lot of big questions: What’s the point? What’s the meaning? Why am I here?

Existential theory tries to answer a lot of those questions to help people find meaning and understanding. It’s a concept long debated and discussed by philosophers of the last two to three centuries. It’s also found its way into a type of therapy.

Existential therapy tries to help people find meaning and purpose in their lives. It seeks to end the fear of the unknown. A therapist actively encourages patients to use their capacity to make choices and to develop their lives as a way to maximize their existence, or their reason for being.

Yes, you have free will and the ability to determine your future. That could be stressful or empowering. Existential therapy’s goal is to help you make the choices that leave you feeling less anxious and more authentic.

Existential theory is a centuries-old philosophy. It embraces personal freedom and choice. It purports that humans choose their own existence and meaning.

European philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is thought to be one of the first philosophers of existential theory. Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre followed him and further developed the ideas.

These philosophers believed that self-awareness and self-respect were the only way to know your own identity. They believed that personal evolution was necessary because things constantly changed. Life was always evolving. The only constant was a person’s responsibility to decide in the moment what they wanted to be and how they wanted to be it.

Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl developed logotherapy in the mid-20th century. This type of therapy intended to help people find meaning in life. That was the primary purpose of an individual, Frankl believed. It was a precursor to today’s existential therapy.

Alongside Frankl, psychologist Rollo May helped shape the practice of a type of humanistic therapy that focused on this concept of existential psychotherapy.

In more recent years, psychiatrist Irvin Yalom established the four givens of existential therapy. These givens, or essential issues, have come to define the problems and roadblocks that prevent people from living their most fulfilled life.

According to Yalom, the four essential issues are:

  • death
  • meaninglessness
  • isolation
  • freedom or a responsibility to make the best choices

Existential therapy is designed to help people overcome these essential issues with specific directions, goals, and tools.

Therapists who practice existential therapy aim to help their patients embrace their choices and their plans with an eye toward the possibilities, not the past. Existential therapists believe the past can be instructive. However, it isn’t meant to inform anything you currently do or want from life.

Instead, therapists urge patients to use creativity, love, and other life-enhancing experiences to help them make decisions and determine their behaviors for the future. In this process, a therapist hopes to help their patient learn to think and act without concern for anxiety or fear of messing up one’s life.

Ultimately, the goal of existential therapy is to help people finding meaning despite natural worries and fears of the four givens. If they’re successful, they can live authentic lives filled with self-respect and self-motivation. They can also make choices from places of positivity, not fear.

Existential therapy can be incorporated into any type of psychotherapy. The techniques of this philosophy involve talking, listening, answering questions, and engaging with your therapist over many weeks, possibly months. But instead of treating a symptom, such as anxiety, existential therapy aims to focus on the person as a whole.

As an example, existential therapy would suggest that people with addiction disorder are dealing with anxiety and fear because of one of the essential givens. But, they didn’t find a resolution that left them reassured. They then turned to substance use and misuse.

For an existential therapist, in that case, they would work to help the person with the use disorder face that anxiety head-on. They may help their patient identify why those anxieties and fears feel so overwhelming.

They may even try to introduce patients to experiences that enhance their well-being. These may include relationships, courage, spirituality, and others. This positive affirmation and engagement helps the therapist guide you to thoughtful responsibility — and hopefully the end of substance misuse.

No matter the specific technique, the goal behind existential therapy is to let people grow and embrace their lives, their wishes, and their curiosity without fear of the givens.

It aims to address issues of empathy, the here and now, and even dreams, which can reflect unconscious fantasies, with the help of an existential therapist.

According to Yalom, existential therapists are thought of as “fellow travelers,” who can provide empathy and support to help patients make decisions.

Existential therapy may be beneficial for people with a variety of symptoms, including:

  • anxiety
  • dependency or use disorders
  • depression
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • apathy
  • shame
  • resentment
  • rage
  • meaninglessness
  • psychosis

Some studies have also found that existential therapy may have positive benefits for people who are incarcerated, living with advanced cancer, or chronically ill. Likewise, one study also found that older adults living in care homes may also see some benefit from existential therapy.

People who practice existential therapy often have two areas of training. The first is mental health training. Most people will have a graduate degree in psychology or counseling or a medical degree in psychiatry. Secondly, they may also have completed additional work in philosophy.

Finding an existential therapist

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Many therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists practice existential therapy or humanistic therapy in addition to other types of behavioral therapy.

This type of practice is often perceived as too pessimistic or dark for some people. That’s because it embraces the painful, hurtful elements of life. For example, one goal of this therapy is to learn to not be afraid of death so that fear of death doesn’t control your choices.

While most psychotherapy focuses on one-on-one interactions, research suggests group therapy may have some benefit for people practicing existential therapy.

In one study, participants were more likely to be a part of a group if the duration of the group’s efforts were shorter. However, the shorter duration may not have resulted in great effectiveness. In that study, the short interaction did little to help the study participants’ psychological state.

In another study, however, educated women homemakers more frequently reported “self-flourishing” and an improved attitude toward life after taking part in existential group therapy.

But despite these studies, this type of therapy isn’t well researched. The very nature of this therapy — that a person finds meaning and learns to take responsibility for choices — is difficult to measure. That has made comparing it to other types of therapy and treatment methods difficult.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with worry or anxiety when you stop to think about your future, your purpose, your meaning. Those are big questions. In fact, for some people, contemplating these questions too often or without good resolution can lead to an existential crisis.

But the goal of existential therapy is to help people not feel overwhelmed by the future and the possibility. Instead, a therapist will seek to help you find a balance between being aware of your responsibility to your own future and not being overwhelmed by it.