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What is an Existential Crisis? How to Overcome and Move on

ChatOwl Depression

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“The greatest fear that human beings experience is not death, which is inevitable, but consideration of the distinct possibility of living a worthless life.” 

― Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls

Although most of us don’t dwell on why we are here, it is not uncommon, at some point in life, to question what the meaning of all this is. In various aspects, you might wonder if your life has a meaning, a purpose, or value.

But dwelling on whether your life has meaning, whether you should continue on or not, or what it all means in the end, can sometimes become obsessive. If it is linked to bouts of depression and anxiety, considering your existence too much can lead to comparing your life in a way that can become detrimental to your overall mental well-being.

What are the Triggers of an Existential Crisis?

There are many triggers related to an existential crisis like losing faith in a religion you once believed in, the loss of a loved one, or even failing at a dream career. An existential crisis does not come from anxiety over a critical inquiry in life. Nor does it come from being depressed and having a hard time finding things that you enjoy or motivate you. 

An existential crisis stems from a change in the way that you view the world and how you have always operated in it. It is when the thing that gives your life structure and meaning is pulled, and you are forced to view things through a very different and uncomfortable lens. An existential crisis stems from the concept that everything you thought you knew was true, isn’t anymore. And you aren’t really sure what is.

In general, people usually think that their lives have value and meaning. When you have an existential crisis, you stop believing in purpose. It isn’t something that you can diagnose like depression using the DSM-5, there is no protocol to treat it or medication that will make it go away. To date, there is no agreed-upon therapeutic treatment recognized by the medication community about how to tackle someone who is experiencing the shattering of their worldview.

What is Existentialism?

Statue of the Great philosopher Socrates outside the Academy of Athens main building, in central Athens.

Philosophers like Marin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Soren Kierkegaard have long theorized that when someone is facing their own mortality, any pursuit in life can be viewed without meaning. Therefore, they argue that it is up to each person to be the architect of their own meaning of life by living their “authentic” self. Sartre’s argued that people were condemned to be free, which means that we recognize our mortality. But we also can decide who we want to be while we are here. 

At the heart of existentialism is existential angst. It is the concept that there is a byproduct that humans have to acknowledge that our existence is nothing but futile. But we still seek to make meaning out of our daily lives anyway. Existentialism would argue that existential angst is an inevitable part of being human. But an existential crisis is something completely different and challenging to overcome or challenge.

When something life-altering event happens to you, you have the choice to either allow it to shatter the meaning you once found, or you can choose to find meaning elsewhere and alter your value set. And that choice is what is at the heart of an existential crisis. When going through one, you have to decide if you are going to give in to the despair that you feel?

Or, do you use that despair to rise above and find a way to reinvent who you are and what you find your value is. So although an existential crisis might be viewed in light of the event that brought it on, it can also be seen as an opportunity to find new meaning and to become someone different, perhaps even better than you were before you found yourself in crisis.

Why Do Some People Find Themselves in Crisis?

Although an existential crisis can stem from a significant life event, it doesn’t necessarily have to have a cause at all. It can strike someone without any real catalyst or reason. Existential despair and depression are not the same, although sometimes talked about together. It is possible to be extremely happy, going along in life without a care, and suddenly be hit by the question of what this life is all about, and forced to evaluate your value.

Once you begin to ask yourself what the meaning of life is, existential anxiety can set in, no matter what is going on in your daily life. It isn’t that you suffer from worrying about what the human existence struggles are and what they mean; it is that you ask yourself how you fit into the grand scheme of life.

During an existential crisis, you might ask yourself if there really is a “self,” if your accomplishments on earth have been enough to make a difference, or if anything you ever have done, or will do, will matter at all. During a crisis, you might start to ask yourself if you are who you have always thought yourself to be.

And that simple question can make you begin to ask if anything you believe in is true. Although the existential crisis might appear to have no underlying cause, it is normal, and yes, even necessary, to question your identity. And doing so can usually be traced back to a series of events in your life.

The Causes of Depression and Existential Crisis

An existential crisis might come from one life-altering event, or it might be a build-up of many factors in a person’s life. They can come after long streams of negative thinking, feeling isolated, or having an abundance of stressors in your life like anxiety and depression. When you have depression for an extended time, the emotions tend to build. And when they have no resolution, they can lead to feelings of despair, hopelessness, and loss of purpose in the world. 

Types of Existential Crisis

Unhappy woman sitting thoughtfully at the back yard

To simply define what an existential crisis is, it is when someone faces their existence. But there are many types of existential crises that someone might go through.

 Meaning

One of the most central questions revolving around an existential crisis is whether a person’s life has some sort of preexisting meaning or not. Having a life that has no meaning is not comfortable for many, so they seek to create meaning when they can’t find one around them.

Some people turn to religion to find it, some look to their family, their passions, their career, or even to the things that bring them joy. Humans must find their own meaning basically because there is no meaning in the life that precedes them. If a person fails to find a sense of purpose in life, they can have deep-seated feelings of existential anxiety.

Existence and Emotions

Some people are better at blocking out and avoiding their feelings from day-to-day. They deny things like anger and sadness, thinking that if they don’t acknowledge them, it is the road to happiness. But, in the end, that might lead someone to discount their emotions.

And, eventually, that can lead to a false sense of happiness. Over time, you can begin to lose touch with your emotions, leading you to question what is real and what is not. If you choose to suppress how you really feel and only allow specific emotions that fit into your overall view of the way that you want things to be, that can make you feel disingenuous.

And when an unpleasant emotion does surface, it is difficult to deal with how it makes you feel. Then, you can start to wonder if anything that you feel, tranquility, peace, or happiness is real. Or, if you have created them all in your head.

Authenticity

We can all feel inauthentic at times, trying to pretend that we are someone we are not. If you don’t like your genuine self, that can start to make you feel like a fake in your own life. For instance, if you go along with a career that goes against some of your political beliefs, you can start to feel as if you aren’t being yourself.

Or that you aren’t being your authentic self. When you start to question why you are someone in one instance and another person in another, then that can begin to shatter how you see yourself and the way that you define who you are. When who you believe yourself to be is incongruent with how you behave or act, that can lead to anxiety or an identity crisis.

And if you don’t know what your identity is, then that can lead to an existential crisis where you start to ask what your value is.

The Limitations of Mortality and Death

Sometimes some events take place in life that leads to an existential crisis. As you get older, it is natural to begin to question what life is all about. As you start to come to terms with the fact that we are all mortal, and, eventually, this will be over, it can be overwhelming.

Things like having a significant injury that limits your abilities forever, or seeing wrinkles and lines in the mirror can remind you that life doesn’t go on forever. 

Going through an existential crisis is common when people receive a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. They start to question what they will leave behind. And if anything you do will make a difference or be remembered at all. Facing the end of your life is a time to take stock of what you have accomplished and what you might mean to others. 

Also, some people are fearful of what comes after this life. And that fear can lead to some real anxiety. It can also lead someone to experience an existential crisis, wondering if this is a warm-up to something greater, or if this world, in fact, is it.

Isolation and Connectedness

Although it would seem that being connected and being isolated are exact opposites of one another, they tend to exist on a continuum for human beings. We are inherently social beings who need to form connections to others to have our most primal needs met.

But we also need to separate ourselves from others to find out who we are and to create our own identity. Having too much of either can lead to different sorts of crises. If you don’t have enough time alone, you can start to lose your individuality to a group.

If you don’t have enough time with others, or if you lose someone or a relationship is broken, you can feel alone. That might lead to questioning who you are and how you are connected to the people around you and the universe.

Freedom or Free Will

Freedom is something that we, as humans, hold sacred. But it can also be a factor to an existential crisis. Having freedom means that you can make your own choices. But it also means that we are ultimately responsible for the decisions that we make, and the outcome of them.

If you are fearful of the repercussions of your actions, it can lead to paralysis and failure to act at all. Or, it can also lead to making the wrong choice, and, therefore, dealing with the adverse consequences of your decision. Having endless freedom to choose your path can lead to anxiety because you understand that every choice you make in life shapes your existence and who you ultimately are.

What are the Risks and Complications of an Existential Crisis?

According to the Archives of Internal Medicine (Kissane, 2012), existential crises are most common in those who are facing a progressive or advanced illness. And they can also follow certain events:

  • Turning an age that is significant in your culture and identified as being “old.”
  • The loss of a loved one
  • Going through a traumatic or tragic experience
  • Experiencing a relationship altering events like a marriage or divorce
  • Feeling socially alone
  • Having a history of bottling up anger and resentment
  • Guilt 
  • Being unhappy with yourself and what you have accomplished

There is also evidence of a link between an existential crisis and specific mental health conditions like:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder 

Even though evidence suggests there might be a link, that does not mean that there is a definable causality.

How to Overcome an Existential Crisis

"KNOW YOURSELF (BUT A BIT YOURSELF TOO)" is written on a door, near a sign with a fire extinguisher.

Although the term involves the word “crisis,” which can sometimes be viewed negatively, an existential crisis does not always have to be a negative thing in one’s life. It is not only natural and healthy to evaluate who and what you are in the scheme of life and what this all means; it is inevitable.

Like most events in life, an existential crisis can be positive if you choose to view it as a way to alter your course and find more fulfillment in life than to allow it to make you question the meaning of it. 

If you use an existential crisis to better yourself and to find a better you, it can be a very positive thing! There are ways to turn a crisis into a mission to find the most authentic you possible and to live a life as your genuine self going forward.

Refuse to Engage in Negative Self-Talk

When a person experiences an existential crisis, it can lead to feelings of chaos and being overwhelmed. And when we are overwhelmed, our inner voice tends to be our worst enemy if we let it be.

Don’t engage in worst-case scenarios or negative self-talk that will only lead to further negativity and feelings of depression and sadness. It is alright to have pessimistic thoughts, maybe even impossible not to.

But try to replace those thoughts with more optimistic ones. If you control the inner negative talk or even neutralize it, the sting of an existential crisis will lead to seeing a positive path for improvement.

Be Grateful

Happiness is not a once and done thing. It isn’t a state that you sit in permanently, but rather an experience that you flow in and out of. Instead of focusing on the true meaning of life and what gives it purpose, think of life as a continuum of small experiences.

If you start to write down those times of happiness, it is easier to see how they add up. And also how they are not separate entities, but an overall path to life. Try to write down all the happy things that you can focus on and events as they happen.

That way, when you feel overwhelmed about the grandiose nature of life’s meaning, you can reflect on the small things that bring you joy. And how they are what make up who you are instead of believing in one substantial experience.

Look for the Little Answers

Have you ever tried to answer a very complex question without considering all the things that lead to the answer? Part of the reason that an existential crisis is so overwhelming is that you are trying to answer a question that even the greatest philosophers throughout history have not yet been able to.

Always looking for the all-encompassing grand answer can lead you to feel more out of control and anxiety-ridden. It can also lead to feelings of helplessness and despair. 

When you feel overwhelmed by thoughts about what the meaning to life is, break it down into smaller, more reasonable questions. For example, instead of asking yourself what you have done in your life to make things better, ask instead if there was anything you did today that made a positive impact on the world around you.

Although it might only reveal a fraction of your question, it can help you to get from one day to the next, knowing that you did make a difference regardless of how small or lasting it was. And overall, since you know that every decision you make impacts the world around you, you can find peace knowing that you made a positive difference, if just for one day.

Talk With Others Who Understand

If you try to talk it all with your inner voice, you are only going to get one side of the argument. And it will probably be the one that will not help you find a resolution. Having someone to talk to, or even a group of people who understand what you are going through might help to give you a sounding board to see your crisis from a different, and more helpful, perspective.

If you allow other people into your conversation, they can help to challenge beliefs you have that may or may not be valid. And they can also present different possibilities that you are incapable of seeing. A study released in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care (Sand, Strangulations, 2006) uncovered how important group discussion is for people diagnosed with cancer facing an existential crisis.

The people in the study found that facing an existential crisis with others who are similarly struggling helps people to find the answers they seek, and sometimes to do so together. 

 When you Should Seek Professional Help

If you have overwhelming feelings of anxiety or despair about what the meaning of life is or what your value in life is, then it might be time to seek the help of a professional. An existential crisis can come from long-term feelings of depression and anxiety.

And it can also lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety if not dealt with properly. It is best to talk with a mental health professional if you feel as if you are stuck wondering and worrying about who you are and what you are here for. And obviously, if you are dealing with a major life event that is bringing on an existential crisis, talking with a professional can help you to make sense of your feelings.

Suicide Prevention

If you, or someone you love, are at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, it is best to get them the help they need. Take the following steps if you are in immediate need of help

  • Call 911
  • Stay with your loved one until help arrives
  • Remove all medications and weapons that might be potentially harmful
  • Listen to the person without providing judgment or suggesting answers
  • And if you or the person you love is having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800.273.8255

No one will make it through life without times of questioning what it is all about and how you play into the grand scheme of it all. It is both natural and necessary to see yourself in a relationship to the whole. But if it becomes obsessive, or you can’t seem to pick yourself out of the helplessness you feel, or the overwhelming nature of your own mortality, it might be time to seek help.  

Existential Crisis Summary

Although we often think of an existential crisis in negative terms, like most things in life, it is how you perceive the crossroads and how you react to them. A crisis can either make you feel paralyzed with fear, or you can choose to turn it into a positive and alter your life going forward to find a more authentic you.

Finding the genuine you inside, and experiencing times of happiness when they arise, is the way to find happiness and fulfillment, instead of seeing life as one grand gesture. Happiness and tranquility are found in small moments. And when you piece them all together, you will find true meaning. 

 If you are having a difficult time pondering the meaning and value of life, and you can’t seem to shake it, contact the professionals of ChatOwl. Our counselors can help you identify a road to health and happiness…and most of all, a better new you!

Resources

https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jpm.2006.9.1376

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230790906_The_Relief_of_Existential_Suffering

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