Worried About the Big Picture? How to Deal with an Existential Crisis

Night sky showing the Milky Way galaxy above a forest clearingAn existential crisis is a period of time when a person questions their existence. They might begin to wonder who they really are or what the meaning of life truly is. Some people may begin searching for a new sense of purpose or feel the need to make other changes in life.

Simply feeling out of place or disconnected from life doesn’t necessarily indicate an existential crisis. Thinking about life’s “deep questions” is fairly common, and not everyone experiences existential crisis. Crisis can be said to occur when you ask yourself (or others) these questions and experience anxiety, frustration, or depression when you aren’t able to find satisfactory answers.

Thoughts of suicide aren’t uncommon during existential crisis. It’s important to get help right away if you experience persistent depression or have thoughts of suicide.

What Causes an Existential Crisis?

Anyone can experience an existential crisis. Some common triggers are listed below.

Age transition

Transitioning from the teen years to young adulthood, or into middle age or older adulthood, causes some to doubt the meaning of life. People might consider their past and future years and wonder what they have accomplished. They may worry about making the most of the years ahead or feel as if they aren’t equipped to handle new responsibilities that come with growing up. Some dwell on or miss a previous stage of life.

A life-altering event

Existential crisis can develop after events such as marriage, divorce, breakup, childbirth, trauma, or loss. These events can lead people to question life as they know it. Trauma or death make many realize their own mortality, especially if the death was unexpected. Some people begin questioning their identity after beginning a new relationship or ending an existing one. For example, an individual may feel they exist in the context of their relationship but have no separate self.

A life-threatening event

It’s common to have a period of crisis after being involved in a car accident or natural disaster or experiencing a life-threatening illness. People facing death from cancer or related illnesses may lose sight of the meaning of life or fear what comes after life. Surviving an accident or disaster can sometimes lead to feelings of survivor’s guilt and a search for the meaning of life. It’s not uncommon to question your survival and worry about being “unworthy.”

Signs You May Be Having an Existential Crisis

Existential crises often happen after something causes a person to realize their mortality or lose an ideal. They’re usually recognized by the following signs:

  • Feelings of depression and hopelessness. These could relate to job dissatisfaction, a relationship that isn’t going anywhere, or failure to achieve one’s goals. Some may wonder what the point of life is if it’s not possible to achieve their dreams. A recent loss could also contribute to these feelings.
  • Anxiety. Existential anxiety might present as feelings of worry about the future, what happens after death, or the meaning of life. Some may feel they’re missing out on some greater part of life but be uncertain what that is. Most people consider these thoughts from time to time, but they can cause distress when it’s hard to stop thinking about them.
  • Isolation and loneliness. Feeling alone in the world is common during times of crisis. Some individuals find it hard to relate to others or believe others don’t understand what they’re going through. People considering existential concepts also may spend more time alone, working through these thoughts. Increased time alone can contribute to feelings of loneliness.
  • Existential obsessions. According to the International OCD Foundation, existential OCD describes intrusive thoughts about philosophical questions or other issues that can’t be answered, such as “Why are we here?” These thoughts persist and may lead to depression. It may be difficult to avoid thinking about them, and some spend hours cycling through these thoughts, exacerbating feelings of fear or hopelessness.
  • Loss of interest or motivation. Some parts of life may begin to seem less important when searching for purpose. It’s not unusual to feel as if the activities of life are mundane or meaningless. Some people also find that their personal values change as they attempt to find meaning in life. But this can be a positive outcome. Realizing new values can lead to a new sense of purpose, which can help resolve the period of crisis.

Feeling as if there’s no point to anything because nothing you do makes a difference can lead to a loss of motivation. Some begin to feel their relationships with others don’t matter and isolate as a result.

How an Existential Crisis Can Impact Mental Health

If you’re struggling to reconcile your present life with what you’d hoped for yourself, you may experience sadness, frustration, anxiety, and depression. Because people often experience depression and anxiety during a period of existential crisis, they may be diagnosed with one or both of these conditions. But depression and anxiety brought on by an existential crisis aren’t entirely the same as typical depression or anxiety.

Existential anxiety specifically describes fear or uneasiness about life’s true meaning. An individual could feel as if they’ve made the wrong choices or aren’t free to make choices they want to make. They might worry about death or the afterlife. Worrying about these things can keep people from enjoying life in the moment, especially if anxiety occurs as intrusive or obsessive thoughts (existential OCD).

Existential depression refers to the feelings of disinterest, sadness, hopelessness, and loss of motivation that often accompany an existential crisis. People might feel hopeless about society, the world, or other “big-picture” concepts. Feeling as if there’s no point to anything because nothing you do makes a difference can lead to a loss of motivation. Some begin to feel their relationships with others don’t matter and isolate as a result.

How to Deal with an Existential Crisis

Some people can work through existential crisis on their own. It may take time, but eventually they accept that some of life’s questions simply can’t be answered. They may find a renewed sense of life purpose through newly discovered values. For example, someone who felt like they contributed nothing might decide to spend one day each week volunteering in their community.

If the crisis lasts and negatively affects daily life, well-being, relationships, work, or school, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist. A compassionate, qualified counselor can teach you ways to cope with feelings of depression and despair. While existential crisis isn’t a diagnosable mental health condition, depression and anxiety can be serious if untreated. If you have thoughts of suicide, it’s best to reach out to a suicide helpline.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you learn to challenge and change unwanted thoughts, can help you deal with existential depression or anxiety. Therapy approaches such as humanistic therapy and existential therapy can also be very helpful.
  • Existential therapy helps you accept the givens of life—freedom/responsibility, death, isolation, and meaninglessness—and teaches you to cope with them by accepting them without letting them overwhelm you.
  • Humanistic (person-centered) therapy helps you discover and focus on the importance of your true self. In humanistic therapy, you may discover the changes you can make to live your most fulfilling life.

When dealing with an existential crisis, it can help to remind yourself how your life has meaning to others. Do you take care of a child, parent, younger sibling, or pet? Do you help others at work? Are you studying something that will allow you to help others? Try keeping track of daily kindnesses, acts of compassion, positive experiences, and other things that give life meaning. You might begin by listing the people in life you care about and ways you impact each other.

If you’re struggling with a specific part of life, consider whether change is possible. Therapy is a good place to not only explore questions about life, but also to identify and address areas of unfulfillment and talk through potential changes.

References:

  1. Andrews, M. (2016). The existential crisis. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 21(1), 104-109. doi: 10.1037/bdb0000014
  2. Butėnaitė, J., Sondaitė, J., & Mockus, A. (2016). Components of existential crisis: A theoretical analysis. International Journal of Psychology: A Biopsychosocial Approach, 18, 9-27. Retrieved from https://eltalpykla.vdu.lt/bitstream/handle/1/32983/ISSN2345-024X_2016_V_18.PG_9-27.pdf?sequence=1
  3. Different approaches to psychotherapy. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/therapy/psychotherapy-approaches.aspx
  4. How to cope with a later-life crisis. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_mind/how-to-cope-with-a-later-life-crisis
  5. Kehr, B. (2018, June 19). Existential crisis in young adults. Retrieved from https://drbrucekehr.com/existential-crisis-in-young-adults
  6. Penzel, F. (n.d.). To be or not to be, that is the obsession: Existential and philosophical OCD. The International OCD Foundation. Retrieved from https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/to-be-or-not-to-be-that-is-the-obsession-existential-and-philosophical-ocd
  7. Yang, W., Staps, T., & Hijmans, E. (2010). Existential crisis and the awareness of dying: The role of meaning and spirituality. Journal of Death and Dying, 61(1), 53-69. doi: 10.2190/OM.61.1.c

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  • Mazza

    Mazza

    February 1st, 2019 at 6:37 AM

    This is a great article! I’ve recently turned 50 and much of what I’ve been experiencing is written here. It’s helped to see this put into words.

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