Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP
Written by Jon Johnson
An existential crisis may occur when a person frequently wonders whether or not life has any inherent meaning or purpose. A person may also question their own existence within a world that might seem meaningless.
Experiencing an existential crisis is common, and it is normal and often healthy to question one’s life and goals. However, an existential crisis can contribute to a negative outlook, especially if a person cannot find a solution to their questions of meaning.
Existential crises may be associated with a number of mental health conditions. For this reason, it is sometimes best to involve a doctor — especially if an existential crisis has the potential to lead to despair or suicidal ideation.
That said, there are some ways to face an existential crisis in a healthy way, ultimately benefiting a person’s mental health and well-being.
Keep reading to learn about the different types of existential crisis, the risks and complications, and some ways to overcome them.
What is an existential crisis?
Simply put, the term “existential crisis” refers to a moment of deep questioning within oneself. This usually relates to how someone sees themselves and their purpose within the world.
A person who is experiencing an existential crisis may try to make sense of some grand or difficult-to-answer questions, such as if their life has any purpose or if life itself has any inherent meaning at all.
Although it is healthy to question one’s life and work, existential crises can take a negative turn. This is not always the case, but it may occur if the person is unable to find an answer to these challenging questions.
An existential crisis may also occur after long bouts of negative emotions, feelings of isolation, or other stressors, such as depression or anxiety.
Feeling down or going through a period of anxiety and negativity are also normal. However, when these emotions or struggles build up and have no resolution, a person may fall into despair about themselves, their value, or their purpose in the world.
When asking questions from this negative headspace, there may only seem to be negative answers, and this can be harmful for a person’s mental health.
Origins of the term
The term “existential crisis” has its roots in existentialism, which is a school of philosophy. Existentialism focuses heavily on the meaning and purpose of existence, both from an overall and individual perspective.
The core idea behind existentialism is that the world is inherently meaningless, and that it is down to the individual to create their own sense of meaning and purpose.
Philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche have both published works that scholars consider to be existentialist. It was Jean-Paul Sartre who eventually popularized the term “existentialism” in the 1940s.
It was not until years later that psychologists would define the scenario as an existential crisis.
Types of existential crisis
In the simplest terms, an existential crisis refers to facing the crisis of one’s own existence. However, this is a very broad umbrella term. There are many types of questions that may cause an existential crisis, and a person may face one of many different issues.
The sections below look at the types of existential crisis a person may experience.
Perhaps the central question surrounding an existential crisis is whether or not a person’s life, or life itself, has any preexisting meaning. A meaningless life is not appealing to many, so humans will tend to create a meaning if they cannot find one.
Historically, this meaning came from religion, but it may now come from such things as family, work, passion and enjoyment, or travel. The basic idea is that a person must find their own meaning because there is no inherent meaning in the life that precedes them.
However, if through this questioning a person cannot find a sense of meaning, they may have deep feelings of existential anxiety.
Emotions and existence
Some people may try to block out or avoid feelings that they struggle with, such as suffering or anger, thinking that this will allow them to only experience feelings they want to enjoy, such as happiness or tranquillity.
This may lead to some people not giving validity to all of their emotions, which may, in turn, lead to a false happiness. This could make a person feel out of touch with their emotions. If this state breaks down, it may lead to a type of questioning that could cause an existential crisis.
Some people may experience feelings of inauthenticity that could lead to an existential crisis.
For example, a person may feel that they are not being true to themselves, or that they are not being authentic to who they are. They may feel that they are not acting authentically in various situations.
Questioning this may lead to a breakdown of the various definitions a person has given themselves, which may cause great anxiety, a crisis of identity, and eventually one of existence.
Death and the limitations of mortality
Anyone can experience an existential crisis. However, some forms of questioning and crisis may go hand-in-hand with certain life events. For example, as a person gets older, they may struggle to come to terms with their own mortality.
Finding the first gray hair or seeing age lines and wrinkles in the mirror can make a person very aware of the aging process and the fact that their life will one day come to an end.
An existential crisis based on death and mortality is not uncommon in people who receive news of a life threatening illness. They may ask themselves if they have truly accomplished anything in life. They may also become truly aware of death and the anxiety of facing the end of their life.
The unknown aspects of death, such as the mystery of what awaits people afterward, can also trigger deep feelings of anxiety and fear in some people. This can also lead to an existential crisis.
Connectedness and isolation
Connectedness and isolation may seem to be polar opposites, but they exist on more of a sliding scale in humans. Humans are inherently social creatures and need to form connections with others to meet some of their most basic needs.
However, humans also need times of isolation to engage with themselves and develop certainty in their own ideals.
Having either too much isolation or too much connectedness may lead to a crisis of sorts. Without isolation, for example, a person may lose aspects of themselves to the group.
On the other hand, a loss of connectedness — due to the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, or feeling ostracized from a group — may also cause someone to question these connections and how they relate to their own existence.
Freedom is a common aspect of existential crises. Being an individual means having the freedom to make one’s own choices. However, the flip side of this is that it also means being responsible for the outcome of those choices.
This can lead to an uncertainty about taking any action for fear that it may be the wrong action or lead to undesirable consequences.
This type of crisis can trigger anxiety not only about choice, but also in relation to how these choices shape life and existence as a whole.
Risks and complications
As one article in the Archives of Internal Medicine explains, existential crises are common in people who face advanced or progressive illnesses.
Existential crises may also have links to other events in life, such as:
- turning a culturally significant age, such as 40 or 50
- losing a loved one
- going through a tragic or traumatizing experience
- experiencing a change in relationships, such as getting married or divorced
There may also be a link between an existential crisis and certain mental health conditions, including:
- borderline personality disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
However, this does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.
Overcoming an existential crisis
Experiencing an existential crisis does not automatically mean that a person has a mental health issue. In fact, it can be a very positive thing. Questioning one’s life and purpose is healthy. It can help provide direction and lead to better fulfilment in oneself.
The following sections provide some simple tips that may help a person positively overcome an existential crisis.
Keep a gratitude journal
Rather than having one large, meaningful experience that gives life purpose, most people have a series of small but significant experiences that make up their life. Keeping a gratitude journal can be a great way to identify these moments.
A person can add these small and meaningful events to their journal as they happen. Looking back on this journal later may help remind a person of the things they enjoy about life, as well as the positive experiences and interactions they have that collectively give their life meaning.
Do not give in to pessimism
When a person finds themselves in existential chaos, it can be easy to let the negative thoughts take over. However, this may give rise to even deeper feelings of negativity.
A person should try to acknowledge any pessimistic ideas but then replace them with their optimistic counterparts. This may help control the inner dialogue a person has or at least make the self-talk more neutral.
Look for smaller answers
Part of the weight of an existential crisis is in trying to find a single, all-encompassing answer to a question that may be too large or complex to answer in such a way.
Trying to find grand answers to these big questions can cause even more anxiety, leading to deeper feelings of worry and despair.
Instead, it could be much easier to break these very large questions into smaller chunks. Then, work to find answers to these smaller questions.
For instance, instead of asking whether or not a person has done anything with their life as a whole, they should ask themselves how they have impacted the world around them in the past month.
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.
Talk it out
Talking to oneself is helpful, but it may lead to similar conclusions each time.
Having a person or group to talk to, such as a friend or trusted loved one, may help a person see the crisis from a different perspective. This can give them more options and possibilities to explore.
A study in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care notes the importance of discussion groups for people with cancer who are facing existential dilemmas.
Having discussions with their peers about these topics can help such people face challenges and learn, possibly even finding the answers together.
When to see a doctor
Although questioning oneself and the world is healthy, there are times when it is best to see a doctor or a mental health specialist.
Some people can overcome an existential crisis on their own, but anyone whose existential crisis seems to lead them toward depression and anxiety should see a mental health specialist.
If an existential crisis leads to suicidal ideation, seek immediate help.
- If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Call 911 or the local emergency number.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Anyone can experience an existential crisis. It is normal and healthy to ask oneself big questions about life and meaning.
However, these large questions will not usually have simple answers, and they will vary widely from one person to the next. For this reason, there is generally no easy way to resolve an existential crisis but by navigating through it.
There are times when a person may get past their existential dilemma without help, and generally, an existential crisis does not require medical intervention.
However, if existential questioning does lead to more serious mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety, a person should see a doctor or a mental health professional for advice and treatment.