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Last Updated on November 27, 2020

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, 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.”

As one can gather, these are not the highlight moments of our lives, but they 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.”

So what is an existential crisis, exactly? We will work to define an existential crisis and help you learn how to cope with it.

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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 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.

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?

As I already mentioned, 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 be any of the following[2]:

  • 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, especially negative 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 why people may undergo existential depression—death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness[3].

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

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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.

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

Finally, 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.

As one can gather, it’s not a great place to dwell in, but there are things you can do to help pull yourself out of it.

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.

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.

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.

2. Keep a Gratitude Journal

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

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

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 that make you happy.

4. 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.

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).

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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.

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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