What Is an Existential Crisis—and How Can I Break Out of One?

An existential crisis is an internal conflict about what is the meaning of life and existence. Find out more about the signs and how to cope.

What is an existential crisis?

Certain moments in life—like losing a job or, worse, losing a loved one—can turn your world upside down. Sometimes an experience like that leaves you questioning the meaning of life and existence itself. That’s when anxious, depressed, or unsettling thoughts can manifest as an existential crisis. 

The idea of an existential crisis is nothing new. The 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard—considered the father of existentialism—theorized that the world itself isn’t meaningful; It’s made meaningful when you live authentically—embrace who you really are and follow what you truly value and believe. Another philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, popularized the term “existentialism” in the 1940s. And research psychologists and psychiatrists have been studying what it means to be in an existential crisis ever since.

According to a review of studies published in 2016 in the International Journal of Psychology, an existential crisis is characterized by feelings of guilt, fear, and anxiety. Unlike other mental crises, the analysis showed, an existential crisis includes the inner conflicts and anxieties that go along with responsibility, independence, freedom, purpose, and commitment.

“An existential crisis isn’t a psychological diagnosis, but an internal conflict,” says Rachel Singer, a licensed psychologist and the director of postdoctoral training at the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change in Rockville, Maryland. “This can be a time for growth, introspection, or developing a healthy identity. It can also feel like a struggle between two polar forces, such as intimacy and isolation.”

sad woman at kitchen sink, looking out windowLeon Harris/Getty Images

What causes an existential crisis?

It’s usually troubling circumstances that trigger an existential crisis. Whatever the specific crisis, it usually leads to a lot of questions, along the lines of: What does it all mean? What’s the point? Why do I even bother to ___ ? (You could fill in the blank with go to work, get out of bed, etc.)

An existential crisis may leave you feeling anxious or depressed. But it isn’t the same as anxiety or depression. “Typical experiences of anxiety and depression exist on a continuum, ranging from mild, specific, and transient to severe, general, and persistent,” says Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition in Portland, Oregon. “Most of us have experienced passing states of anxiety entering an unfamiliar situation or confronting a challenge for which we felt unprepared. Some of us have also dealt with more persistent fears, as in snake phobias. Likewise, depression can range from a temporary case of the ‘blues’ to severe forms of major depression.”

An existential crisis can have similar symptoms of depression. But it tends to differ in the sense that there’s usually a crisis of meaning, says Neimeyer.

The signs and symptoms of an existential crisis

If you’re experiencing an existential crisis, you “feel that the very ground of your being is eroded or exploded by circumstances that carry sweeping implications for who you are and how you live,” says Neimeyer.

For example, you may struggle with a sense of who you are following a life-altering diagnosis, the loss of a job, death of a partner, or trauma like losing your home in a wildfire. “Or perhaps your world is suddenly awash in a global pandemic, which utterly rewrites the script of life as you know it,” says Neimeyer. “Suddenly, you find yourself in a world made alien by loss or deeply unwelcome change. And you begin asking anguishing questions that have no easy answers.”

How to cope with an existential crisis

“One buffer against such crisis is to live authentically,” says Neimeyer, echoing Kierkegaard. “This implies reducing the discrepancy between who we know ourselves to be and who we present ourselves to be, to practice genuineness and honesty in our dealings with ourselves and others.”

That may sound lofty, but there are easy ways to put Neimeyer’s advice into practice, including:

  • Be OK with silence: “Cultivate times when you ‘unplug’ from the endlessly available distractions,” says Neimeyer. That means all digital devices, including phones, tablets, computers, smartwatches, e-readers, and TVs.
  • Embrace uncertainty: Ask yourself two questions: What is the thing I’m most afraid of? And what if it comes true? “Often, the answer is, ‘It would be very hard, but I would be able to handle it,’ ” says Singer.
  • Keep a gratitude journal: Fill it with all the things that add meaning to your life. It’ll help you sort out what really matters to you and help clarify what you want to do with your life.
  • Connect with others: An existential crisis can happen when you feel disconnected. “Spend time with others in intimate conversation about things that matter,” says Neimeyer.
  • Practice mindfulness: Whether it’s yoga, meditation, or an activity that makes you feel good (like volunteering for a cause you believe in).

When to seek help

If the feelings of despair last more than a couple of months, connect with a counselor. Seek immediate help if you or a loved one is “ruminating about sources of anguish or even suicide as a means of escaping it,” says Neimeyer. If you’re struggling “with a sense of meaninglessness for months on end, perhaps in a downward spiral, it can be time to reach out to another who can sort out what it means, and what you need.”

If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress. 

Sources
  • International Journal of Psychology: “Components of Existential Crisis: A theoretical analysis”
  • Rachel Singer, PhD, a licensed psychologist and the director of postdoctoral training at the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change in Rockville, Maryland
  • Robert Neimeyer, PhD, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, Portland, Oregon