Existential Crisis (A brief guide)

Existential Crisis
JuanitaHFNE

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behaviour, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.

In this brief guide, we will discuss what does it mean to have an existential crisis and some strategies to cope with it. 

Existential Crisis

The existential crisis can be defined as certain moments in life when people question whether their lives have a clear meaning or purpose or even a value attached to it. It may be common, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we are depressed or having a negative approach to life and the purpose of it. 

Most of us experience anxiety, depression, and stress through our day to day activities, our job, and relationships. For many, these emotions and feelings are transitory and won’t actually interfere significantly with our normal functioning. 

For other people, negative associations of emotions can lead to a deep feeling of despair causing people to question their own existence, also known as an existential crisis. 

Existential Crisis (A brief guide)

Philosophers, psychologists, and psychiatrists have studied and proposed existential crisis theories such as Kazimierz Dabrowski and Irvin D. Yalom for decades, starting as early as 1929. However, even with the amount of research on the topic, you may not yet be familiar with the difference between an existential crisis, anxiety, and depression. 

At some point in our lives, we all experience an existential crisis being normal and often makes us think about our current way of living and our immediate to long term goals. However, for some, an existential crisis can be associated with a negative perspective, especially if a person cannot find a satisfying answer to their existential questions.

Since ancient times, mankind has to turn into question their own existence and the purpose of life which is not necessarily something negative. The problems lie when we are unable to give an answer to those questions causing the loss of inner joy and inability to enjoy the things we used to enjoy before. 

As we have mentioned, an existential crisis can be associated with mental illnesses so this is why sometimes it is best to involve a mental health professional, especially when it leads to a profound sense of despair or suicidal ideation. 

However, there are some ways you can deal and face an existential crisis in a healthy way where you can benefit from it mentally and contribute to your overall wellbeing. 

What can cause an existential crisis?

We all know how stress is a very real and tangible part of our normal day to day functioning and they can be a major source of triggering an existential crisis. It is believed that this type of crisis is likely to be triggered by a significant event or trauma, or even a major loss. A few causes of an existential crisis may include:

  • Feeling guilty or ashamed
  • Suffering the loss of a loved one or facing the reality of imminent death or thought of dying
  • Feeling socially dissatisfied 
  • Feeling dissatisfied with yourself
  • Storing emotions and never expressing how you really feel

Crisis of freedom and responsibility

When you have the freedom to make your own choices, it comes to a big responsibility. Here we are faced with the fact that our choices can make our lives better or worse and no one else is to blame but ourselves. 

Many people do like to enjoy their freedom of choice in life as opposed to other people making decisions for them. For some people having so much freedom can actually trigger their anxiety because life becomes too overwhelming and they start questioning the meaning of the choices they make. 

Existential Crisis (A brief guide)

Crisis of death and mortality

The existential crisis has been associated with age. At some point when we turn a certain age, then we are confronted with the reality of how you have lived your life so far and how the idea of death seems so tangible. This makes you question the fundamentals of your life, if you have had a satisfying fulfilling life or if on the contrary, you haven’t achieved certain goals you had from a few years ago. 

Reflecting on the meaning of life and death and asking questions around the subject such as “What happens when I die?”, “Is there a heaven and a hell?”, “Is it just darkness and emptiness awaiting?”. This fear of death can actually trigger anxiety and it can happen after someone has been diagnosed with cancer or any serious condition where death is imminent. 

Crisis of isolation and connectedness

Even if you are an introvert or even if you prefer to be left alone for periods of time, human beings are meant to be social creatures. Building strong and healthy relationships with others can help you and support you mentally and emotionally, bringing satisfaction and inner joy. The only problem here is that some relationships (if not all of them) are not meant to last forever. 

People tend to change according to the period of time, age and personal interests drifting apart emotionally and physically, and even death can separate you from loved ones leading to isolation and loneliness. Here people tend to question their lives and often perceive it as pointless. 

Existential Crisis (A brief guide)

Crisis of meaning and meaninglessness

We are all in search of finding our purpose and meaning of life but sometimes after a bit of reflection, you may feel as if you haven’t accomplished what you proposed your life goals would be or didn’t make any significant contribution to the world or made any difference in it. This can lead people to question their very existence.

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Symptoms of an existential crisis

According to Healthline “Experiencing anxiety and depression when your life is off track doesn’t always mean that you’re going through an existential crisis. These emotions, however, are tied to a crisis when accompanied by a need to find meaning in life.”

Existential crisis related to depression

Experiencing depression during an existential crisis is considered normal. Symptoms associated with depression include the loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, feeling drained or fatigued, having headaches, feelings of hopelessness, and persistent sadness.

When having an existential crisis related to depression you may also experience suicidal ideation or ending your life when accompanied by feelings of not having a purpose. 

Existential crisis related to anxiety

“Existential anxiety can present itself as being preoccupied with the afterlife or being upset or nervous about your place and plans in life,” Leikam says (Healthline.com)

Stress is a well-known part of our lives and accompanies us mostly throughout daily activities but the anxiety differs from this type of stress in the sense that even your very own existence and everything that is happening in your life has the ability to make you feel uncomfortable and anxious. 

Existential Crisis (A brief guide)

How can I overcome an existential crisis?

Experiencing an existential crisis does not mean you have a related or associated mental illness, on the contrary, it can also be something very positive. 

Questioning your very own existence, its meaning and purpose can be healthy. It can actually help you make better decisions and lead to better satisfaction in your current life situation.  Here are some tips from Medical News Today we would like to discuss:

Gratitude journaling

Keeping a gratitude journal can actually be quite beneficial since it tends to give your life a meaning and a purpose and something to be thankful for. Instead of having one major meaningful experience you can actually have small but very fulfilling and significant experiences instead. 

As a meaningful experience tend to happen you can write them down as a reminder. Looking back at your journal can be quite helpful when you are feeling down or as if you have lost the way in your life.

Shifting pessimism for optimism

If your life is in chaos, it is easy to give in to negative thoughts and have a pessimist way of perceiving life. In addition, this may give rise to even deeper feelings of negativity.

Instead, you can try to acknowledge the pessimistic ideas you have and turn around into optimistic ideas. 

Looking for Answers 

When you have an existential crisis, your main idea would be to find a single, all-encompassing answer to your questions but this may be so vast that it will not cover all of them entirely. 

Trying to break down the questions and answers can actually reduce your anxiety levels, which tend to make you feel worried and in despair. Breaking them down into smaller pieces or chunks can make it easier to find the answers you may be looking for. 

It is a common existential question to ask about how someone has done something meaningful with their lives but instead a small question could be related to a single time frame as asking how did I impact my life and people around me in the past 2 weeks. 

“This may reveal the small but positive actions a person has performed, such as having conversations of support with friends or colleagues. These positives may otherwise go unnoticed when looking at the large, overarching questions of life (medicalnewstoday.com).”

Why is this blog about Existential Crisis important?

We have all experienced or the majority of us will experience an existential crisis at some point. This is not good or bad by itself but it can make us reflect and ask questions related to our very existence and the meaning of it. If we are not able to find satisfying answers to the questions that is when we tend to have a problem.

Dealing with an existential crisis does not have to be perceived as something bad, what we do with it and our ability to shift the situation over will make the difference. 

Please feel free to comment in the comments section below. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Existential Crisis

What are existential problems?

Existential problems are related to having problems perceiving that your life has value and meaning. 

What does existential really mean?

Existential is related to human existence, the word often relates to philosophy of existentialism associated with personalities such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and other thinkers that make an emphasis on the fact that an individual is responsible for their own actions. 

What is the theory of existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe (philosophybasics.com). 

What is an example of existentialism?

An example of existentialism comes in the form of essence. A clear example could be when someone makes a decision about their life where they question either to go through with that decision or not following through. 

What is the opposite of existentialism?

The opposite of existentialism is nihilism, where nihilists believe “There is no god, no heaven or hell, so screw it: there can be no right or wrong”. 

Recommended links

References

Lonerwolf.com

Betterhelp.com

Medicalnewstoday.com

Healthline.com

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