We hope this article will help you understand what an existential crisis is—either for yourself or someone you know—and give you the tools to power through it.
What Is an Existential Crisis?
It’s normal for someone to question their life decisions when choosing which college to attend, which career to pursue, or whether to have another child. None of these decisions are easy, and second-guessing is a common and natural reaction.
However, an existential crisis is more than doubts and second guesses. Existentialism is the result of an individual questioning the meaning, worth, and purpose of their life. They might wonder why life exists or if it’s worth the struggles, the decisions, and the unknowns.
The term existentialism was popularized in the 1940s by the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, but an existential crisis goes beyond the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Viktor Frankl, or Irvin Yalom.
It can be exhausting and dangerous when existential despair, doubts, and questions extend for long periods. These doubts can lead to a pessimistic view of the world when we do not get satisfying answers to the profound questions we all have about life.
What Are the Signs of an Existential Crisis?
The symptoms of an existential crisis vary depending upon the individual. Sometimes the symptoms of an existential crisis are similar to the symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Common symptoms experienced by someone having an existential crisis include:
- Existential depression
- Loneliness or feelings of isolation
- Negative thoughts and emotions
- Lack of motivation
Every person’s existential thoughts will manifest differently, and understanding the different types of existential crises will help treat each case.
Feeling Overburdened and Thinking Obsessively About Death
Individuals often have a heightened awareness of mortality and death during an existential crisis and will often consider the merits of choosing death over life. People in the throes of an existential crisis are at an increased risk for suicide as they consider the inherent meaning of life or whether it’s necessary.
These feelings could lead to dangerous actions or suicidal thoughts, and it’s important to address them as soon as possible.
If you or someone you love is experiencing thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for immediate help.
For longer-term care, seek help from a licensed therapist or mental health professional.
Feeling Guilty and Regretful About Things That Can’t Be Changed
Those experiencing an existential crisis might look back at the choices they’ve made and wish they had chosen differently. They might question why they chose their career path, why they married their spouse, or why they moved to their city. Depression and sadness often come alongside these regrets.
Worrying More Than Normal
Those experiencing an existential crisis often have an increased sense of worry. This worry could come from questioning past choices, wondering about the meaning and purpose of life, or fearing circumstances out of their hands, such as natural disasters, car accidents, or sickness. This could lead to existential anxiety and panic, which in turn further exacerbates the crisis.
Are There Risk Factors for an Existential Crisis?
As mentioned above, an existential crisis typically occurs following a specific circumstance in a person’s life. This could include the major loss of a family member or friend, illness, a lost job or home, a breakup, or a big change such as becoming empty-nesters or having your family move away.
Even an inevitable shift such as reaching a significant age like leaving adolescence at 20 can inspire existential angst and the realization of one’s own mortality.
How someone handles these changes depends on their personality, views on life, support system, and mental health. An existential crisis is multifactorial in the sense that it’s not only about the crisis itself, but it’s also about the individual and how they tend to handle difficult circumstances.
What Should I Do To Overcome an Existential Crisis?
You can take several steps to overcome an existential crisis; however, each person’s path is different. What works for one individual may not work for another. Still, this list is a helpful place to start and may be what you need to address these anxieties, worries, and questions.
Change Your Point of View
This is easier said than done. Our thoughts can often get the best of us and negatively affect how we feel and act. However, taking control of your thoughts is an essential first step when handling an existential crisis.
Consider the crisis’s trigger—possibly a lost job, a family member moving away, or the loss of a pet. Look at this crisis as a way to make changes for the better. For example, if you’ve lost a job, look into other job opportunities that excite you. If a family member has moved away, plan to visit them and explore this new location.
With that being said, it takes time to overcome a crisis. While changing your point of view can help you react to a situation and move through it, you still need space to grieve, process, and overcome the crisis.
You might require a mixture of therapy, support groups, and time. However, adjusting your viewpoint is also helpful when managing sadness and grief, so try pairing this action with the other tactics for healing.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
You might be surprised by how useful this reflection is. Every morning, start your day by recording what you are grateful for to prepare your mind for a positive day. Gratitude journals create an optimistic viewpoint for the day, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You can choose to write anything. Maybe you’re thankful for your support system, a best friend, your health, your car, your home, or opportunities for new adventures. This list doesn’t have to be specific. The goal is to focus your mind on anything positive and uplifting.
This list can also help if you’re experiencing negative emotions and need something to remind yourself of the positive aspects of your life.
Make Meaningful Friendships
Often, feelings of depression, anxiety, and fear that stem from an existential crisis can leave you feeling lonely. Isolating yourself is never the answer. Make connections with others, whether that means joining a support group, going to a small group with your church, or meeting an old friend for coffee.
In addition, it’s important to find a support system you trust. Not every friend needs to be a confidant. It’s okay to have friends you confide in and friends that you just see for fun.
No matter what, make sure you do find a support group. You might discover that it’s the most helpful factor for overcoming your crisis.
Meditation and mindfulness have several benefits for your mental health. Mindfulness involves being in the moment, focusing on your breathing, and not allowing your thoughts to drift outside of that moment. This is helpful for an existential crisis because it prevents your mind from jumping to anxiety, fear, and depression.
Mindfulness can be difficult at first, but with persistence, it will become easier. Start with five minutes of meditation a day, and increase your meditation time when you feel ready. Give yourself time and patience to harness the powers of mindfulness.
Take Your Energy and Redirect It to Something Else
Finding healthy distractions might be what your body and mind need. This doesn’t mean pretending that your situation isn’t happening. Rather, it means taking the pain and fear you’re experiencing and channeling it into something positive.
For example, if your crisis came from losing your job, take your extra time and use it to start a hobby, workout, or spend more time with your family.
We often get stuck in a rut in our daily lives. Some of us are so used to working 40 hours per week that uprooting our schedules can trigger an existential crisis. By creating new schedules and new habits, you may alleviate your symptoms.
Don’t Get Stuck in the Past
How easy is it to regret your past decisions, second-guess your every move, and doubt your ability to make good choices? We’ve all fallen into this trap from time to time.
This is normal; however, it’s a problem when it starts interfering with your daily functions. When you restructure your thinking and realize that dwelling in the past doesn’t benefit you, you might find a release from your anxiety and fear.
Are There Treatment Options for an Existential Crisis?
When it comes to existential crises, it’s important to retrain your body to react positively under stressful circumstances. Some options include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), existential therapy, and existential psychotherapy. As with many mental health issues, existential crises may be best treated by a combination of existential therapists and medication.
Ketamine might be a positive treatment for certain existential crisis symptoms, such as treatment-resistant depression. Pasithea Therapeutics is a biotech company that works to treat mental health and brain disorders worldwide.
Research has shown that ketamine is an effective therapy for those struggling with treatment-resistant depression, and it can even be administered as an IV by an anesthesiologist or CRNA in the comfort of your own home.
If you’re struggling with depression due to an existential crisis, ketamine might be a good option for you.
Existential concerns of a meaningless life are usually precipitated by a dramatic life change such as losing a family member or friend, a job change, or a move.
Many people will question the decisions they make and struggle when making big life changes. A crisis comes about when you become fixated on these changes and decisions, and it begins to interfere with their functioning.
Several steps are available to help you, a friend, or a family member navigating this crisis. Diagnosis by a medical professional like psychologists or psychiatrists is possible, but a combination of talk and ketamine therapy may be the best way to help these negative feelings subside.
It might take time to retrain your brain, but with patience and determination, you might find that you’re able to handle the existential crisis better and not let these behaviors take control.