What Is an Existential Crisis?

Finding meaning in life can reduce existential anxiety.

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What Is an Existential Crisis?

An existential crisis refers to feelings of unease about meaning, choice, and freedom in life. Whether referred to as an existential crisis, or existential anxiety, the main concerns are the same: that the idea is that life is inherently pointless, that our existence has no meaning because there are limits or boundaries on it, and that we all must die someday.

Existential anxiety tends to arise during transitions and reflects difficulty adapting, often related to losing safety and security. For example, a college student moving away from home or an adult going through a difficult divorce might feel as though the foundation on which their life was built is crumbling. This can lead to questioning the meaning of their existence.

For existentialists, an existential crisis is considered a journey, an awareness, a necessary experience, and a complex phenomenon. It arises from an awareness of your own freedoms and how life will end for you one day.

Identifying an Existential Crisis

During an existential crisis, a person may experience a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Isolation from friends and loved ones
  • Lack of motivation and energy
  • Loneliness
  • Obsessive worry

An existential crisis often occurs after major life events, such as:

  • Career or job change
  • Death of a loved one
  • Diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening illness
  • Entering a significant age category, such as 40, 50, or 65
  • Experiencing a tragic or traumatic experience
  • Having children
  • Marriage or divorce

People with the following mental health conditions may also be more prone to having an existential crisis; though these disorders don’t cause an existential crisis:

  • Anxiety
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Types

"Existential crisis" is an umbrella term that can be used to describe or group together many types of issues.

Fear and Responsibility

Existentialism emphasizes that we are all free to make choices in life, and with this freedom to make choices, comes responsibility. However, given the ultimate fate of death, your actions can appear meaningless when viewed in relation to the bigger picture of your life.

In this way, freedom can lead to despair, and the responsibility that comes with this freedom can cause anxiety. How often have you struggled with a decision and feared it was the wrong one? That fear of making the wrong choice reflects angst about freedom related to existential concerns.

Existentialists believe that we have this anxiety or angst because there is no "right" path and no guide to tell us what to do. In essence, each of us must make meaning in our own lives. If this responsibility feels too great, we may retreat into ways of behaving that shield us from this feeling of anxiety.

Meaning of Life

If you struggle with existential anxiety, you might be asking, "What is the point of living?" As you move through transitions in your life and lose the security of a familiar context and structure, you might question the point of life, if in the end, the result is that you die. Why go through the motions?

French philosopher, journalist, and author Albert Camus argued that the ability to have passion for what could otherwise be considered a meaningless life reflects an appreciation for life itself. If you can stop trying to live for the end, or the "goal," and start living for the act of "being" itself, then your life becomes about living it fully, choosing integrity, and being passionate. This sounds not surprisingly like the foundation of mindfulness meditation in the medical model of anxiety.

Authenticity

An existential crisis might move you toward authenticity, which may also bring anxiety. You might have thoughts about the fleetingness of your existence and how you are living it. When you stop taking for granted that you will wake up each day alive, you might experience anxiety, but at the same time deeper meaning.

You might notice that all the day-to-day mundane problems that bothered you so much no longer seem to matter, and all the thoughts and fears and anxiety about the mundane fall away, because you are faced with a much bigger problem.

At the end of your life, will any of this matter? Will it matter what career you chose, how much money you had, or what car you drove?

Major Life Event or Phase of Life

Many people experience an existential crisis when they transition into a new phase of phase such as from childhood to adulthood or from adulthood into senior living. Major life events, including graduations, starting a new job or switching careers, marriage or divorce, having children, and retiring, can also bring on an existential crisis.

Death and Illness

Losing a partner, parent, sibling, child, or other loved one often forces people to face their own mortality and question the meaning of their own life. Similarly, if you are facing a serious or life-threatening illness, you may have an existential crisis that causes you to become overwhelmed with thoughts of death and the meaning of life.

Tips for Overcoming Existential Anxiety

Given that existential anxiety is related to an awareness of the ultimate boundaries in life, which are death and chance, anxiety of this type can be seen as unavoidable rather than pathological. Because of this, each of us must find a way to "live with" this anxiety rather than eliminate it—or so existentialists argue.

There are both helpful and unhelpful ways of responding to an existential crisis. One is the choice not to live at all or to give up on life. A second is to become so absorbed in daily distractions that you don't live an authentic life. This is said to leave no room for existential anxiety, but also no room for an authentic life.

It's a maladaptive coping or avoidance strategy, in essence. How many people do you know who go through life with "eyes wide shut," never looking at the big picture?

But experiencing an existential crisis can also be positive; it can force you to question your purpose in life and help provide direction. Here’s help in making an existential crisis a positive experience for you or someone you love:

  • Write it down. Can you let this existential anxiety motivate you and guide you toward a more authentic life? What can this anxiety teach you about your relatedness to the world? Pull out a notebook and jot down your thoughts on these questions. It's in the answers to these questions that you will find how to cope with an existential crisis.
  • Seek support. Talking with loved ones about your existential anxiety can help you gain a different life perspective and remind you of the positive impact you've had on their lives. Ask them to help you identify your most positive and admirable qualities.
  • Try meditation. Meditation can help you replace negative thoughts and help prevent anxiety and obsessive worry linked to an existential crisis.

History

The term “existential crisis” has its roots in the philosophy of existentialism, which focuses on the meaning and purpose of existence from an overall and individual perspective.

Existentialists view anxiety in a different way than psychiatrists and psychologists. Rather than perceiving anxiety to be a problem that must be resolved, they view it as an inevitable part of life that everyone will experience, and something that is positive and that can teach us important lessons about life.

They view the ultimate concerns of life as death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. These concerns are thought to cause feelings of dread and angst because we can never be sure that our choices are the right ones, and once a choice is made, the alternative has to be rejected.

In 1844, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, "Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way, has learnt the ultimate." This expresses the idea that existential anxiety goes beyond fear about day-to-day troubles.

Treatment

While there is no specific treatment for dealing with existential anxiety, there are treatments that can be helpful. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication can help address symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that may accompany existential anxiety, including thoughts of suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Talking to a professional can be very helpful in reducing existential anxiety. If you find yourself grappling with existential angst, whether due to a transition or life-changing event, self-care approaches that focus on finding meaning may also be helpful.

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Article Sources
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