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Published on April 24, 2019

What Is an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It

What Is an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It

“Life today is not what it used to be.”

How many times have you heard this from your parents or grandparents? Life, 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.

Bottom line—the “better” life comes as a cost—it’s more taxing and strenuous to try and keep 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 too—such as losing a loved one, going through sickness, divorce, or any other difficulty. These unfavorable experiences make it very challenging and impossible at times to keep it all together.

Simply put, we fall apart.

Psychologists call such states “existential anxiety and depression,” or simply “existential crisis.”

As one can gather, these are not the highlight moments of our lives, but nonetheless are very important times of discovery and reinvention.

The American singer Tori Amos beautifully captured this notion:

“Some people are afraid of what they might find if they try to analyze themselves too much, but you have to crawl into your wounds to discover where your fears are. Once the bleeding starts, the cleansing can begin.”

What Is Existential Crisis?

As the name implies, existential crisis has something to do with our existence. More specifically, it’s a period of re-examining our lives’ 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 worlds.

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 spiralling 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 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 the mental and physical distress, known as existential crisis.

Causes of Existential Crisis

As I already mentioned, 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 test in college.

Distress becomes deeper and darker when we undergo a major trauma, loss or an ordeal. According to a piece in Healthline, possible causes of existential crisis can be any of the following:[1]

  • 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

Dr. Irvin Yalom, a prominent American existential psychiatrist and a professor at Stanford University, in his book Existential Psychotherapy, has identified four primary reasons of why people may undergo existential depression — death, freedom, isolation and meaningless.[2]

Fear of death and the inability to have control over it can be, undeniably, a source of anxiety. Freedom, as surprising as it may sound, can also create a sense of uneasiness. Because when we have the ultimate freedom to act, think, speak as we want, this means that we also must take full responsibility of our actions and decisions. Everything that happens to us will be more of a direct consequence of our choices, which, of course, can be rather terrifying to some.

Furthermore, although we are social creatures, the realization that we can never fully know someone or respectively—others may never fully understand is, can make us feel alone and isolated from the world, which leads to isolation existential crisis.

Finally, perhaps the most wide-spread reasoning 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—that have lost their sense of belonging or of purpose and don’t see any path forward.

As one can gather, it’s not a great place to dwell in. And what’s more—there is no easy fix.

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Symptoms of Existential Crisis

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:[3]

  • An intense or obsessive interest in the bigger meaning of life and death. The interest in exploring this may override a person’s enjoyment and engagement with other day-to-day activities.
  • 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 and they are on a completely different level.
  • Low motivation and energy levels to do anything they would normally do.
  • Questioning the purpose, point or meaning of anything, and everything, in life.
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings.

So, 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.

How to Cope with 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 and the greyness 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.

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

1. Inject Some Meaning Back into Your Life

The search for meaning is a universal one—we all want our lives to matter and leave something behind after we are gone.

In my previous post, What’s the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Help You Live with Purpose, I wrote about how each one of us can create their own meaning in life. It’s through compassion and care for our wellbeing, connecting with the world and making ourselves useful.

2. 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.

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3. Don’t Expect of 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.

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

4. Touching and 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 the physical warmth of their mothers.

So, when you feel down, hug away.

There are many other ways to cope with the severe distress and depression which often accompany an existential crisis. Keeping yourself busy, getting involved in helping others, learning to let go, 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.

The Bright Side of 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.

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, 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 as Earnest Hemingway, Virginia Wolfe, 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.

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

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 ways 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. You just must find it.

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.

Featured photo credit: qi bin via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Evelyn Marinoff

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

Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It) What Is an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It Why Am I Not Happy? 5 Steps to Figure Out the Reason Midlife Crisis for Women: How a Midlife Crisis Makes You a Better Person What’s the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Help You Live with Purpose

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

How to Make Changes in Life To Be The Best Version of You

How to Make Changes in Life To Be The Best Version of You

Let’s start with the problem:

You get back from work. You’re tired. It was a long day. You know there’s things you could do, to get out of the rut you’re in.

But, let’s be honest. You really would rather relax, sit down and chill for a bit. Grab a snack. Watch your favourite show.

By the time you’ve done that, the day’s over. There’s just not enough time. To make this worse – you don’t have the energy or willpower to make changes in your life today.

So where do you go from there?

What you need are some easy to apply actions that are proven to work.

This article is going to give you 4 steps on how to make changes in life so you can follow today and get closer to success – even when you are feeling tired and lazy.

These steps have proven to work for me, and many of the coaching clients I work with privately.

1. Squash Inconsistency by Giving up Motivation

Now most people, when they want to make changes to their lives, focus on making lengthy to-do lists and plans. They think over and over again about what is going wrong, what is going well and what they want, etc.

All in a bid to push themselves to getting more motivated.

Guess what? This isn’t going to work.

Willpower and motivation are feelings. Feelings are vague and unreliable.

Instead, what you should do is focus on putting your flawed unpredictable self in the best possible environments.

If you do one thing first from this list, it’s THIS:

Find and go to the best possible environment for the area of your life you want to change.

For example:

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  • If you want to get fit, make your first goal to show up at the gym three times a week.
  • If you want to find a new relationship, show up to a meet up in your city for single people.
  • If you want to be productive and make your business idea work, don’t work at home, go to a co working space nearby.

The reason people fail to become the best version of themselves is because they underestimate the power of environments to influence behavior.

Accept that you are flawed, prone to distractions and your motivation and willpower will fail you.

The best hack at your disposal? Show up to “change inducing” environments and get out of your comfort zone (physically)!

OK. Next step.

2. Recruit an Elite Team to Help You (For Free)

Open up any social media platform you’re active on that contains some positive connections you have.

Send this message to one person you already know and trust ton help you make changes to your life:

“Hey [first name]. Can I be really frank and honest with you? I’m having one of those – ‘OMG I NEED TO MAKE CHANGES TO MY LIFE!’ moments.

And I was browsing the internet, looking for tips and this article I came across suggested accountability. So here I am, messaging you to be part of my accountability system.

My ask is simple.

Can we sit together once a week at [x place] but do absolutely no socializing? I’ll buy the [coffee/food] and it will be a space to force me to do [x thing]. You literally have to do nothing other than eat the free coffee/food I pay for lol. But it will keep my accountability high, which is what I need.

What you reckon? Can you help? Thanks!”

Now obviously, change the language to suit you but you get the idea.

Not only are you going to environments that will help you make changes, but by bringing a friend (or two), you make it even likelier that you will succeed. It doesn’t even have to be in person, it could be a video call.

People fail to make changes to their lives because they try to do it all themselves.

It doesn’t really work in long term, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

You can recruit and “enlist” people to help you. By doing this, you’re taking care of the up and down motivation you have.

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Not only are people happy to help, when they see this type of behavior, they’re also inspired and motivated to change their lives. Pretty soon, you end up creating change in not just your life, but other people’s too.

So when the next dip in willpower comes?

You have a friend sitting right next to you, watching your every move, making sure you get things done anyway.

3. Build Good Habits Effortlessly

Changing your life means changing your day to day habits.

Habits are automated behaviors you do everyday, like how a clock works, without thinking or motivating yourself to do them.

Some habits help you to change, others can stop you. One of the best ways to replace your ‘bad’ habits with good ones is to treat them like old clothes. What happens when your t-shirt gets old, faded and out of fashion? You replace it with something new and improved.

Do the same thing with your habits – upgrade and replace them with something better. Start small, then slowly graduate to higher levels of difficulty.

Let me give you a clear example of what I mean:

A few years ago (before it became mainstream), I was trying to start my own habit of meditating every single day to help boost my productivity and mindfulness. I’d done a mind blowing course called Vipassana. It involved 10 days of deeply powerful meditation combined with noble silence in a remote part of the UK.

Now it was easy to do when I was there (#1 – environment!) with all those other meditators (#2 – people helping me). All I could do was meditate. There were ZERO distractions. I had NO CHOICE.

When I got home however, after a few days of sticking with it, I quickly caved.

Those extra 30 minutes of sleep were just so much easier than waking up everyday at 4am for a long one hour meditation.

So what did I do to build this really important habit?

Like with most things, I wanted to make changes to my life. I wanted to become my best self.

I knew how important it was. I just couldn’t follow through consistently and kept failing over and over.

Then, it hit me.

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I needed to start small. I made a tiny change, that made all the difference.

I made a tiny change, that I could stick to – without fail – that has me meditating daily every single day now.

What was it?

Instead of trying to do something BIG inconsistently (1 hour of 4am morning meditation) and failing again and again. I decided to do something small consistently.

Building any good habit really just comes down to repetition. The way the brain is built works in favour of this.

My new habit became:

When I wake up, I will fold my bedding neatly. Then I will sit cross legged for 30 seconds with my eyes closed.

Eventually, once I did this consistently for a few months. I increased difficulty.

When I wake up, I will fold my bedding neatly. Then I will meditate for 10 minutes.

Why does this work?

What’s important here is that the behavior you want (meditating) is tied to another consistent habit (folding your bedding).

I attached my new habit to one that already is consistent.

Making it more likely to happen.

Secondly, I aimed for consistency, not perfection. This is where a lot of people fail. They have an idea of the change they want, but things become all or nothing.

When you do this, you fail to realize the power of consistency. The brain you have loves patterns. In this case, I trained my brain to repeat a set pattern every morning when I fold my bed.

There was no motivation or willpower required.

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This training has gone so far now that if I miss a day of meditating, I really feel uncomfortable. I’m just as conditioned to meditate as most people are to checking their phones in the morning.

If you want to learn more about quitting bad habits, Lifehack’s CEO also has a guide on it: How to Break Bad Habits: I Broke 3 Bad Habits in Less Than 2 Months

4. Create More Time by Quitting Social Media

You know the best thing I’ve ever done for my productivity and it took me 30 seconds to do?

I deleted all social media apps from my phone and blocked them on my laptop.

Then, to reinforce it, I told all my friends and followers on Facebook (my most used platform) I wasn’t using it for a while.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with my social media. Social media is a tool. Tools are neutral. It’s how we use them that is “productive” or “distracting”.

We each have to judge how healthy our usage is, especially when weighed against unlocking our best self. That said, for most people reading this, including me, I think limiting our usage is a very favorable advantage.

One of the best ways to make changes in our lives is not to add new tools or tricks. But simply remove things that distract us.

Social media is something I use heavily for my businesses. Technically I’m a “social media influencer” and “YouTuber”. I need to be posting constantly, right?

Our situations are unique, so I came up with a unique solution for this. After deleting and blocking these apps from my devices, I installed a social media management software that still allows me to post my updates.

The big difference, however, is I cannot spend any time scrolling and being distracted.

Final Thoughts

Change is not always about more. Sometimes it’s about doing less and getting rid of what distracts or blocks you.

Trying to do things by yourself is a good way to fail. Share your goals and pitfalls with people, no one helps until you ask.

Start with small changes consistently instead of big changes failed at consistently. The momentum will give you results over time.

So what to do next to make changes in your life?

  1. Write down where you are going to GO to create the changes you want.
  2. Message 3 to 4 people on social media and ask them to help you using the message template I gave you.
  3. Choose one small habit to get started with immediately and upgrade it over time.
  4. Delete all, or at least most social media apps on your devices, and notify people you are leaving to make it stick.

More About Making Changes in Life

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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