Sometimes when pondering the meaning of life, we get caught in a spiral, questioning our purpose and whether there is any greater meaning to our lives.
The spiral may lead us to the terrifying conclusion that there is no greater purpose and that our simple lives are all there is. Those who can’t overcome these intrusive thoughts may experience an existential crisis.
What is an Existential Crisis?
According to Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt, Ph.D, health psychologist and author, it’s hard to define an existential crisis. However, she describes it as the panic that results from the realization that life is finite.
Alyssa Roberts, PsyD and senior writer at Practical Psychology, describes it as a period of intense questioning and uncertainty about the meaning and purpose of life.
Humankind has long searched for meaning. We’ve found it in the heavens and the fields, in epic stories or mesmerizing paintings, and in the comfort of interpersonal relationships.
An existential crisis is an intense feeling of dread experienced when faced with the possibility that our lives are meaningless.
When having an existential crisis, we lose meaning and sometimes struggle to regain footing. We may wonder what the point of everything is if there is no point in anything.
Common Symptoms of an Existential Crisis
Jeanette Lorandini, LCSW, and Owner of Suffolk DBT says that an existential crisis can manifest differently for different people. However, common symptoms may include a feeling of emptiness, confusion about the meaning of life, anxiety, hopelessness, and even depression.
Steve Carleton, LCSW and Clinical Director at Gallus Detox, adds decreased motivation, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, isolation, and difficulty making decisions to the list of symptoms.
What Causes an Existential Crisis?
Everyone is different and experiences the world from a unique perspective. The wide array of human experiences means that different things may trigger an existential crisis in different people.
However, a few common occurrences are more likely to lead to an existential crisis.
Here are six common causes of existential crises.
When we’re young, we feel immortal. We give little thought to ultimate meaning and focus on living, learning, and growing.
As we age, we become more and more aware of our own mortality. This hyperawareness may cause us to consider whether there is any greater meaning to our existence, our purpose in life and whether we made the best of our time.
Faith offers humans what they crave: a sense of meaning and the promise of a greater purpose. Religions across space and time sought to answer the most significant questions posed by humanity:
Why are we here?
What happens when we pass?
What does it all mean?
Lorandini explains that an existential crisis may stem from a religious experience that leaves someone questioning their deeply held beliefs.
Roberts expands on the idea to add that a crisis of meaning may occur when someone’s beliefs are challenged or if they don’t feel that they are living by their values.
When people lose faith in their religion, they can no longer find comfort in its teachings. They may face an existential crisis if they don’t have anywhere else to look for answers.
A Life-Altering Change
Getting married, bringing a child into this world, losing a job, and other monumental moments significantly affecting our lives are perfect times for quiet reflection.
Kalley Hartman, LMFT and Clinical Director at Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach, says that these life changes can cause people to question their identity and beliefs about themselves and the world around them.
Near-death experiences, accidents, illnesses, and other close calls offer some a wake-up call. They change their attitude and make a point to savor every moment.
Roberts says these events can cause people to question their morality and search for a deeper meaning in life.
Dissatisfaction with Life
Hartman explains that overall dissatisfaction may lead to an existential crisis. Some may wonder if the daily struggle is all there is and feel a lack of purpose. Others might be dissatisfied with themselves, wondering if their life choices truly reflect who they are.
Kim Saeed, a narcissistic abuse recovery coach, also cites dissatisfaction as a potential cause of an existential crisis. She revealed that people feel run down in their daily life. “You might just get tired of hustling, working every day, having so many responsibilities, and not having much time to enjoy the things that spark your soul,” she says.
Saeed offered the following quote as an example of why people feel unhappy “The gap between what your soul loves and the amount of time you spend doing it is the size of your unhappiness.”
Lack of Connection
Ryan Hetrick, CEO of Epiphany Wellness, thinks a primary cause of an existential crisis is the lack of connection. He said life is about more than knowing how things work or being able to solve the problems of the universe. Life is about feeling like you belong somewhere, with someone.
When we don’t have that connection or feel like we can’t prevent the pain and suffering inherent to life, Hetrick says, “it’s easy to feel like we’re just tiny specs in a big void.”
How to Overcome an Existential Crisis
An existential crisis is an intense experience that can be difficult to overcome. However, those facing a crisis of meaning have some tools to help them move past it and discover meaning in their lives.
Here are some practical methods for handling a deep sense of despair over life’s purpose.
The most important thing someone experiencing this type of crisis can do is seek professional help.
Carleton says a mental health professional can help clients manage their symptoms and safely explore their emotions. Becca Smith, LPC and Chief Clinical Officer at BasePoint Academy, adds that a counselor can offer support, guidance, and tools for coping with negative emotions.
Lorandini agrees, adding that a therapist can help normalize the experience and remind patients that there’s no right or wrong way to discover their purpose in life.
Hartman and Smith both mentioned journaling as a way to cope with negative feelings associated with an existential crisis.
Journaling has many benefits, including improved mental health. Journaling about your feelings can help you sort them out, while other forms of journaling, such as a brain dump or bullet journal, can help you clear your mind or boost your productivity.
Engaging in self-care is a top way to overcome an existential crisis. Roberts says engaging in activities that bring joy helps and recommends hobbies or exercise.
Smith expanded on that, citing the importance of taking care of your physical health. She says eating well and getting enough sleep are crucial to managing a crisis. “Exercising and eating nutritious foods can help boost mood and energy levels, as well as help us manage symptoms of depression or anxiety,” she adds.
Make a Point to Find Meaning
An existential crisis can be described as a crisis of meaning. Therefore, one way to conquer your crisis is to find meaning in your life.
Eckleberry-Hunt reminds us that humans need a sense of purpose to live fulfilling lives. She said we should try to be our best selves and reach our full potential.
Roberts agrees, adding that engaging in activities that give your life meaning can help. She encourages patients to explore their thoughts and ideas about their purpose in life and works with them to identify activities that inspire them.
Explore Your Passions
Lorandini advises clients suffering an existential crisis to explore their passions. The obligations persistent in daily life have a way of stifling our passions, so it’s essential to make a conscious effort to engage with them.
Sometimes, we’re so focused on what we have to do that we forget what we want to do. Rediscovering your passion can help you move past a perceived lack of meaning in your life.
Eckleberry-Hunt describes an existential crisis as an evaluation of your life. She says it’s a perfect time to shift gears and start living intentionally.
Being present in every moment helps. Instead of constantly worrying about the future, try to focus on the present. Consider every second as a gift that you don’t want to miss. Living intentionally in the present can help us stop worrying about life’s big questions.
A crisis of meaning forces us to reflect on our lives and our choices. Roberts says this process is a significant component of surmounting the crisis.
She says people experiencing an existential crisis should take time to think about their values and consider making changes in their lives to better align with them.
Both Lorandini and Carleton stress that building meaningful relationships with others can help those in the midst of a crisis.
Carleton says connecting with people you love can help combat feelings of isolation in times of hardship. He recommends volunteering, taking a class, or joining a support group to meet like-minded people.
Improving your current relationships might help as well. Consider reaching out to old friends and family, and make more effort to include them in your life.
Activities that induce mindfulness, such as meditation and yoga, can help those experiencing a crisis of meaning.
Carleton says practicing mindfulness can help bring awareness and acceptance of the present moment, which can help reduce feelings of hopelessness.
An Existential Crisis Isn’t Necessarily Bad
Although intimidating, it’s important to remember that an existential crisis doesn’t have to be a negative experience.
Roberts reminds us that it’s normal and often considered a crucial part of the human experience. This type of crisis helps us find our purpose in life despite the complex challenges we face.
Carleton says these crises can be powerful catalysts for personal growth. They offer individuals opportunities to learn about themselves and enact meaningful life changes.
You Can Overcome an Existential Crisis
If facing an existential crisis, don’t despair. You can overcome it. You may even come out stronger and healthier than you were before.
Saeed reminds us that the world abounds with things to enjoy. Believe you deserve the goodness, joy, inspiration, and contentment present in your life, and you’ll come through the other side with a renewed outlook on life.
Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life.