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. “The nature of discovering meaning in the midst of everyday life, as well as in absurd and tragic events, is emphasized. In existential thought, life is full of angst as well as joy. There is a paradox to human existence that the more fully one lives life, the more strongly one is aware of death” (1).
An Existential Crisis or Existential Anxiety is composed of those moments when individuals question whether their lives have meaning, purpose, or value. Sometimes an existential crisis can lead to depression. Existential anxiety tends to arise during transitions and reflects difficulty adapting, often related to losing safety and security (2). 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 (4).
However, sometimes an existential crisis can push you to the edge, forcing you to get to know yourself at a deeper level and to find out who you truly are and what you truly value. That been said, an existential crisis can be a great opportunity to create meaning in your life and can feel like a rebirth once it is over, it can be the chaos that comes before the birth of a new chapter in your life. For an existentialist, an existential crisis is considered a journey, a necessary experience, unavoidable and part of life. An existential crisis often occurs after major life events. You may be having an Existential Crisis if you are experiencing the following symptoms: anxiety, depression, feeling overwhelmed, isolation from friends and loved ones, lack of motivation and energy, loneliness, and obsessive worry (4).
Some Tips for Overcoming an Existential Crisis
Fear and Responsibility: Existentialism emphasizes that with freedom comes responsibility and this responsibility creates anxiety in us which stems from the fear of making the wrong choice. The realization that there is no “right path” and that as is illustrated in the movie Mr. Nobody: “Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning” can be very empowering and liberating (3). Coming to this understanding or epiphany can help free you of this anxiety. It is up to you to create meaning regardless of the path you choose.
Falling up: Turn a crisis into an opportunity, sometimes you must take two steps backwards to be able to launch forward and blossom into who you are meant to be. A crisis often is an opportunity for growth or shakes your life up so that things can fall into place and you end up right where you are meant to be. Sometimes a crisis is exactly what needs to happen for you to get back on track in a path that is in line with who you are and your values. An arrow can launch forward only if the arrow is pulled back first.
Re-evaluate your values: Slow down, step back and explore your values more deeply. You may find out that your values have changed and that you are in some ways quite different than who you were a decade ago. Figure out which values are still meaningful to you and which you have outgrown. Then with that data in mind start to make choices in your life that honor those values more.
Life Motto: Create a life motto that truly reflects who you are at the depths of your soul and live by it. This is a simple way to create meaning in your life that can help you build a life worth living.
Radical Acceptance: Accept that you, others, the world, and life is messy and imperfect, and that perfection is an illusion. Getting attached to the idea of perfection leads to suffering, focus on what you can control and accept that many things are not in your control. Re-adjusting expectations can be quite liberating and empowering.
Mindfulness: Live in the moment more and enjoy the little things. “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” (4).
Act: Create opportunities to experience joy and take chances. It is okay to make mistakes, is better to try, learn and re-adjust than to play it safe because of fear of failure. If you play it safe you rob yourself of the opportunity to grow and to live your life to the fullest, honor life and the act of living by taking chances.
(1) Gladding, S. T. (2019). Groups. [MBS Direct]. Retrieved from https://mbsdirect.vitalsource.com/#/books/9780135169742/
(2) Weems CF, Russell JD, Neill EL, Berman SL, Scott BG. Existential anxiety among adolescents exposed to disaster: Linkages among level of exposure, PTSD, and depression symptoms. J Trauma Stress. 2016;29(5):466-473. doi:10.1002/jts.22128
(3) Finney, L. (2016, March). Mr. Nobody. Retrieved July 19, 2020, from https://u.osu.edu/finney.77/mr-nobody/
(4) Cuncic, A. (2020, April 26). What Is an Existential Crisis? Retrieved July 19, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/coping-with-existential-anxiety-4163485