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Last Updated on June 7, 2022

What Is an Existential Crisis? (And How to Cope With It)

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What Is an Existential Crisis? (And How to Cope With It)

Life, a few years ago—before the Internet, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram—was so much less stressful. Everything was simpler, people socialized more face-to-face, there was less pressure to wear many hats and pull yourself in multiple directions.

Today, though, life is supposedly more advanced—we have more things to make it all more convenient, but we have so much information thrown at us that, at times, it’s hard to keep on top of everything.

The bottom line is that the “better” life comes at a cost—it’s more taxing and strenuous to try and keep it all in balance.

In addition to these global forces, on a personal level, we all go through our own metamorphoses. We all have our own battles to fight, monsters to stand up against, ups and downs we need to overcome.

Eventually, we all reach a point in our lives when we are faced with some distressing event—quite often outside of our control—such as losing a loved one or going through sickness, divorce, or any other difficulty. These unfavorable experiences make it very challenging and impossible at times to keep it all together.

Psychologists call such states “existential anxiety and depression,” or simply an “existential crisis.” But what is an existential crisis?

What Is an Existential Crisis?

So what is an existential crisis? As the name implies, an existential crisis has something to do with our existence. More specifically, when we look at the existential crisis definition, it’s a period of re-examining our life’s meaning, purpose, or values.

These “big” questions are usually triggered by a traumatic event we’ve been through, which has shattered our current beliefs about our world.

Faced with the fleeting nature of life, we realize that we don’t have control over many things that happen to us—which, admittedly, is not a comforting thought. Anxiety builds up, and we end up spiraling further down and down the rabbit hole.

It’s important to note that not every turning point in life leads to an existential crisis. Stress is often a normal part of the everyday, and in many cases, it’s temporary and it passes.

But when it lingers longer and makes us feel as if everything is hollowed out of meaning, and when we start questioning our place in life and the reason for being, we can certainly say that we have fallen under the dark spell of mental and physical distress, known as existential crisis.

Symptoms of an Existential Crisis

An existential crisis is a dark period and can take a serious toll on both our mental and physical state.

Someone who is deep down the depression road can have a heightened sense of[1]:

  • An intense or obsessive interest in the bigger meaning of life and death.
  • Extreme distress, anxiety, and sadness about the society they live in or the overall state of the world.
  • A belief that changes in anything are both impossible and futile.
  • Increasingly becoming, and feeling, disconnected, isolated, and separate from other people.
  • Cutting ties with other people because they feel like connections with others are meaningless or shallow.
  • Low motivation and energy levels to do anything they would normally do.
  • Questioning the meaning, point, or purpose in life.
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Obviously, it’s quite serious and shouldn’t be taken lightly. You can’t just “sit it out” and wait for the storm to pass. Frequently, it may not go away on its own.

What Causes an Existential Crisis?

An existential crisis is not triggered by ordinary events which may lead to more-or-less “normal” levels of stress and anxiety—such as starting a new job, marriage, having kids, giving presentations at work, or studying for a big test.

Distress becomes deeper and darker when we undergo a major trauma, loss, or ordeal. Possible causes of an existential crisis can vary. [2]

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Dr. Irvin Yalom, a prominent American existential psychiatrist and a professor at Stanford University, in his book “Existential Psychotherapy”, has identified four primary reasons why people experience existential depression—death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness [3].

You Don’t Know the Meaning of Your Life

Perhaps the most wide-spread reason behind why some go through existential depression is because they suffer from the constant drizzles of disappointment with their lives and a sense of meaningless—they have lost their sense of belonging or purpose and don’t see any path forward.

One of the most common questions people dealing with an existential crisis ask is “What is the point of life?”

As you go through different life phases, you may wonder what your “end goal” is. However, there are those that argue that you don’t need to find answers. Instead, you should stop living for the “end goal,” and simply enjoy life as it comes.

You Have a Fear of Responsibility

Everyone is free to pave their own path in life. However, every choice you make has consequences.

Freedom, as surprising as it may sound, can also create a sense of uneasiness because when we have the ultimate freedom to act, think, and speak as we want, this means that we also must take full responsibility for our actions and decisions. This can be rather terrifying to some.

You may be dealing with anxiety or angst because you have realized that there is no set path in life, and no one will tell you what you should do. Therefore, you are tasked to find out your purpose in life, and this responsibility may be too great for you to handle.

You Feel Hate

This type of crisis is common for people in their 20s.

You may feel as if every person you know hates you or they are talking about you behind your back. However, this is usually just driven by paranoia and sometimes, insecurity.

You are Going Through Major Life Event

A lot of people experience an existential crisis before, during, or after they transition into a new phase or life event. This may be during graduation, starting your first job, getting married, or transitioning to senior living.

You have Illness or Fear of Death

Losing someone you love, may it be a child, parent, partner, or friend, can lead to an existential crisis and make you question what the meaning of your life is. In the same way, if you are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, you may also be overwhelmed with feelings about your own mortality.

Fear of death and the inability to have control over it can be, undeniably, a source of anxiety.

How to Cope With an Existential Crisis

Feelings of constant distress can be daunting, to state the least—a true happiness-thief.

So, how do you save yourself from the gloominess you feel inside?

Luckily, we are far from choice-less, psychologists tell us. In fact, there are many things that we can do to help ourselves when we start questioning the purpose of our existence and the meaning of it all.

One thing that’s worth mentioning as well is that existentialists prescribe that we should learn to live and cope with the anxiety vs. eliminating it. They view even this deep distress as a normal part of life. Therefore, their strategies aim at acknowledging and managing the sunless thoughts and feelings, rather than trying to force them into positive ones.

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Here are some additional ways in which we can help ourselves through such distressing periods.

1. Dive Into the 5 W’s

When dealing with an existential crisis, it’s best to tackle the root of it all. Try by asking yourself the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, and why you feel like you’ve come to this point.

Who – Who were you prior to this existential crisis (were you working out regularly, were you involved in a community sport, etc.)? Who did you surround yourself with? Who do you go to for advice or encouragement, who makes you feel negative about yourself?

What – What were some events that led up to this point both professionally and personally? What environment were you in? What’s the energy like? What values stay true to you and what has changed over the years?

Where – Where do you want to go from here? Where do you picture yourself in your happiest state? Where do you put most of your time and energy throughout the day?

When – When do you have free time for yourself? When do you get ready for the day ahead? When did you feel you started having an existential crisis? When did major events occur in your life?

Why – Simply and compassionately ask “why” for everything. This article can help you dig deeper

The simplicity of the word “why” is to help you become self-aware and learn more about yourself. We spend more time getting to know others by having dinner with people, coffee, or hanging out, but how often do we do that with ourselves?

Get to know yourself as if getting to know another friend. Ask these questions with compassion and thought, and the root may be much easier to find.

2. Inject Some Meaning Back Into Your Life

You are not living a meaningless life. The search for meaning is a universal one—we all want our lives to matter and leave something behind after we are gone.

Each one of us is capable of creating meaning in life. It’s through compassion and care for our wellbeing, connecting with the world, and making ourselves useful.

3. Surround Yourself with Positive People

They say misery likes company, but if you’re feeling down and defeated, it’s best to surround yourself with positive people  with high vibrations instead of basking in feelings of isolation.

This is not only to be exposed to high energy, but also to learn different coping mechanisms from others. Everyone deals with emotions differently and if something is not working in your favor, it never hurts to try to find an alternative route.

4. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Although not ground-breaking, this idea has many proven benefits.

Reminding ourselves of what we are lucky enough to have achieved can do wonders for our mental health and will quell our anxieties.

5. Don’t Expect Yourself to Have All the Answers

Quite often, when we mull over the big questions of our existence and purpose, we put pressure on ourselves to find the answers right away. We feel angst and disappointment with ourselves, and possibly pangs of envy with those who have it all figured out.

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But, remember, you don’t have to find a solution to everything. Just re-discover the things that are meaningful to you and that make you happy.

6. Give Yourself 10 Minutes

“If you don’t have 10 minutes, you don’t have a life,” – Tony Robbins

Your personal time can get washed away in the long day to day listing of things, and 10 minutes can seem like a long amount of time.

How often do we also spend 10 or even 30 minutes mindlessly scrolling on our phones or spending that time on tasks that are of less importance?

Prioritize your time and find a hobby that can be integrated into a daily routine and away from the screens. It can be meditating , journaling, drawing, listening to music, or gardening.

While we live in a world where information is constantly at our fingertips, we’re quick to indulge in a huge amount of information without letting our brain digest. Having at least 10 minutes to let ourselves breathe can ground us for the rest of the day ahead.

7. Measure Accordingly

Look at how you’re measuring your goals and successes. Are they time-sensitive?Are they achieved by a certain age? Or are they set by financial limitations?

Goal setting is important to achieve the things we want in life, but it’s always important to not only get attached to the time-frame, but stay focused on the goal itself.

Most times, people are pressured and attached to the idea of time that then translates to stress and unfulfillment.

8. Feeling Connected

One of the prescribed ways to overcome feelings of existential isolation is through touch[4]. For instance, practicing daily hugs can help alleviate anxiety and create a sense of belonging.

The idea comes from research on mother-infant bonding and how youngsters thrive when they receive the physical warmth of their mothers.

There are many other ways to cope with the severe distress and depression that often accompany major life changes and existential crises. Keeping yourself busy, getting involved in helping others, learning to let go, and living in the present moment are all excellent tactics to help you get out of the darkness you may feel enveloped in.

The main idea behind all these techniques is to find your own reasons again for being and to re-affirm your worth.

If you need help learning how to connect more with others, check out this article.

The Bright Side of an Existential Crisis

The influential Polish psychiatrist Kazinierez Dabrowski developed a theory he called Positive Disintegration (in the mid-1960s) [5]. It’s based on the notion that anxiety and distress are necessary for growth and development.

Another aspect of the theory relates to gifted individuals. They are different and special, Dabrowski believed, as they are sensitive, highly emotional, intellectual, imaginational, curious, and prone to anxiety. Therefore, they are also the ones who are more likely to go through an existential crisis and depression.

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These people also have greater “developmental potential,” he asserted. What this means is that they look at the world through a different lens—they have better awareness of themselves and others, and they try to understand and make sense of everything around them.

But they are also often the lonely outcasts and the restless souls (many great writers, such as Earnest Hemingway, Virginia Wolfe, and Charles Dickens to name a few, have been known to have gone through an existential upheaval).

So, there is clearly a bright side to the dark feelings that accompany an existential crisis.

For one thing, it means that if you are going through one, you are likely a very gifted, intellectual, and sensitive individual.

More importantly, though, such a condition is highly treatable. There are many paths you can take to emerge from the bleakness you feel inside.

When to See Professionals

Experiencing existential crisis is normal, and most people break through their existential crisis without professional help.

However, if your anxiety and depression symptoms are worsening and preventing you from doing day-to-day activities, you should see a therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist. Similarly, you should also speak to a mental health professional if you start having suicidal thoughts.

Final Thoughts

Finding meaning in everything we do, day in and out, is not an easy undertaking. It’s normal to feel distressed when you lose your way or when you go through a major trauma and loss.

And it’s not uncommon, when faced with such deep and joyless emotions, that you take a step back and re-evaluate your life.

Because it is often through pain that we emerge stronger and more resilient.

No matter the challenges that fate throws our way, there is always a reason to keep going forward.

It’s as Albert Einstein told us:

“Curiosity has its own reason for existence.”

You never really know what exciting things may wait for you around the corner; and that is the beauty of it all.

More About the Meaning of Life

Featured photo credit: Warren Wong via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Evelyn Marinoff

A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.

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