How To Get Through An Existential Crisis, According To Mental Health Experts
We've all experienced moments when life and all its mystery feels overwhelming—and sometimes, that overwhelm can turn into a full-blown existential crisis.
Whether you're worrying about the future, questioning the meaning of life, or experiencing fears around your own mortality, here's what to know about an existential crisis, plus how to work through it, according to mental health experts.
What is an existential crisis?
An existential crisis, simply put, encompasses overwhelming feelings of dread, anxiety, confusion, and dissatisfaction around the deeper questions of life (i.e., who you are, what happens after we die, the general meaning of life, etc.).
According to 2016 research published by the American Psychological Association1, existential crises are defined as "confusing and high-anxiety times when a person is trying to resolve and find the answer to this question: Who am I?" The research notes the concept was first introduced by renowned psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1970s, who referred to it as an identity crisis—though the idea of the "dark night of the soul" has been around for centuries.
As licensed psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, L.P., tells mindbodygreen, virtually everyone will have an existential crisis of some kind at one point or another, but it doesn't have to be totally negative. In fact, she says, it can serve as a positive force that encourages you to dig deeper, make changes, and find more meaning in your life.
Of course, this isn't exactly an easy process, and making your way through an existential crisis can involve feelings of dread, anxiety, and in some cases, depressive symptoms like hopelessness. "People in an existential crisis may look fine on the outside, but in actuality, they can have a debilitating amount of existential dread and fear on the inside," Spinelli explains.
What causes an existential crisis?
A number of things can trigger an existential crisis, from a random realization about the nature of reality to more jarring events like a medical diagnosis, war, losing a loved one, or a traumatic experience. Essentially, anything that abruptly shifts your perception or your existence may incite an existential crisis, according to Spinelli.
It's also worth noting that there are a few different types of existential crises, which are more or less common depending on how old you are. As Spinelli explains, there is a "sophomore crisis," which is an existential crisis in someone's teenage years as they come into their identity and start thinking about the future.
A quarter-life crisis, on the other hand, typically happens in early adulthood as a young adult transitions into the working world and adjusts to life on their own. Midlife crises happen in middle age and tend to be more about reflecting on past choices and missed opportunities. Lastly, there are "later-life crises," Spinelli says, which involve questions around mortality, illness, legacy, regret, and purpose.
Regardless of when an existential crisis occurs, though, similar symptoms are to be expected. As psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT, previously told mindbodygreen, "When people reevaluate their lives, it often brings up mixed emotions of anxiety, stress, regret, and sadness."
Plus, the older we get, the harder it is to ignore our inevitable finitude. "Something about the recognition of that leads people to want to grasp at something, to feel more alive—and sometimes make changes in their life," psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D., previously told mindbodygreen.
For any visual learners out there, there's a textbook example of an existential crisis at play in Season 2 of The Good Place, as one of the show's main characters is thrown for a loop when he realizes there's a possibility he could die. Check it out here (if you don't mind a slight spoiler).
7 signs you're having an existential crisis:
You feel depressed and/or anxious.
Existential crises are characterized by intense feelings of anxiety around one's life or the nature of reality in general. Sometimes, realizations around mortality or the more negative aspects of our world can also make someone in an existential crisis feel depressed, coloring the crisis with a somber or hopeless energy.
When you're in the midst of an existential crisis, you may often find yourself thinking, "What's the point?" And that goes for your job, your responsibilities, your relationships, and even your own self-care. As Spinelli explains, "An existential crisis can make people feel less motivated to handle their responsibilities because their day-to-day tasks seem less important in comparison to major issues in the world."
You can't stop thinking about existential things.
And speaking of major issues in the world, if you can't stop thinking about them (or other existential things like death or the meaning of life), that's another sign of an existential crisis. These thoughts can become so pervasive that they impact your quality of life—i.e., your motivation, as aforementioned.
Ultimately, Nuñez explains, you're constantly trying to "find out who you are as a person, and trying to find the meaning of life."
You're stuck in the past—or the future.
If your existential crisis was triggered by an event in your life, it's easy to become fixated on it and feel unable to move forward, according to Spinelli. Similarly, if your existential crisis has more to do with what will happen in the future, you may stress about what's to come (i.e., worrying you'll never discover your purpose or leave a legacy).
You feel isolated.
Existential crises can be very lonely, Spinelli tells mindbodygreen. In fact, loneliness can actually trigger an existential crisis when it leads someone to start contemplating deeper questions about the relationships in their life. Plus, the crisis itself can make it difficult to connect with others as you're struggling to connect to yourself.
As Nuñez previously explained, "I see a lot of couples where one partner is going through a midlife crisis and the other isn't, and you'll see a lot that this leads to breakups or divorces during this midlife crisis age."
Intrusive thoughts and negative emotions run amok in your mind.
Tying back to No. 3, constantly grappling with existential dilemmas can take a major toll on your mental health. Even beyond thinking about deeper issues in your life, you may also feel a host of negative emotions or experience intrusive thoughts. According to Spinelli, this could be anything from anger to helplessness, panic attacks, low self-esteem, to suicidal thoughts.
You act impulsively.
When someone is in the throes of an existential crisis, they may remedy their discontent by behaving impulsively, according to Nuñez. "They may live a more reckless lifestyle because of the urgency to reevaluate life and really live," she explains, with Yusim adding, "Even impulsive changes are a product of long-standing frustrations or difficulties that people have been quite conflicted about—and maybe at some point have finally decided to act on."
How to get through it.
First things first: If you are going through an existential crisis, know that you will get through it—and it can even serve as a catalyst to make positive changes as you move forward with a deeper understanding of life and who you are. So, where should you start?
According to the aforementioned 2016 research, three approaches to handling an existential crisis include finding a meaningful career, having at least one fulfilling relationship, and practicing shifting your perspective. Let's break that down further:
Identify what is meaningful to you.
We may never truly understand the meaning of life, but some would argue the meaning of life is to give your life meaning. And according to Spinelli, you can bring so much meaning to your life in small but mighty ways. "Instead of focusing on large existential questions about the meaning of life and the universe, find answers to smaller questions you can answer," she says, adding to further look at how your life impacts the world around you and how you can make a difference.
"Focus on the things you can do or control, instead of what is out of your control. Find things that bring you joy. Be intentional about what brings you joy. This helps us to find connection in our life that feels valuable," she tells mindbodygreen.
Foster your relationships.
If there's anything that can restore hope in dark times, it's love from a friend, family member, or partner. As previously noted, loneliness can trigger an existential crisis and despair, but the opposite is also true, and having a network to support you in difficult times is essential in any crisis.
"Make an effort to reach out to friends and cultivate meaningful relationships. Surround yourself with people that encourage, motivate, and inspire positive life goals," Spinelli suggests.
Shift your perspective.
"Shifting your perspective" might sound oversimplified, but it can actually be the hardest part of getting out of a deep existential crisis. Learning how to reframe your thoughts is a process that takes time, patience, and a whole lot of mindfulness.
Try your best to remain present in the here and now rather than getting swept up in past regrets or worries about the future. Spinelli recommends mindfulness and meditation to help you feel grounded and adds to remember that you can't change the past. You can, however, find comfort and motivation in the fact that your life is yours to create.
Practicing gratitude regularly is also a simple way to encourage your brain to look for more good in the world. "Keeping track of things you're grateful for (or writing them in a journal) serves as a reminder that there are things—even if they are small—that you can feel grateful for. And those add up to feeling connected to life and its meaning," Spinelli explains.
What does having an existential crisis mean?
An existential crisis encompasses overwhelming feelings of dread, anxiety, confusion, and dissatisfaction around the deeper questions of life (i.e., who you are, what happens after you die, the general meaning of life, etc.).
What triggers an existential crisis?
Some examples of common existential crisis triggers include going through a major life transition, questioning your religious faith, grappling with the meaning of life, losing a loved one, witnessing suffering in the world, receiving a medical diagnosis, etc.
Is existential crisis a mental illness?
No, experiencing an existential crisis does not mean you have a mental illness. However, people who have mental illnesses can certainly go through existential crises.
Having an existential crisis is anything but easy, and yes, there is much to be frustrated, confused, angry, or scared about in this life. While your existential crisis may indeed confront you with deep regrets or fears, what counts is what you make of it and how you use it to propel you in a better direction—and that rings true in all aspects of life.
People struggling with depression and/or having suicidal thoughts can now call 988 to receive free support. Information about how to contact the lifeline and resources for finding support can be found here: https://988lifeline.org/. They may also find resources on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website: https://www.samhsa.gov/.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.