How to Overcome an Existential Crisis
There are times when you doubt everything, even yourself. The world appears to be a distorted and meaningless scenario, and the people in it seem like empty entities of no interest. Your resolutions fail and you feel overcome with sadness. But, how do you overcome an existential crisis? How do you deal with feelings of numbness and constant unreality?
We’ve all had doubts at some point about the meaning of life and our place in the world. From a psychological point of view, although this clinical category doesn’t exist, the experience is usually defined as existential depression. It’s a moment of personal inflection when it’s necessary to reflect and make decisions and changes.
If you identify with this experience, the following guidelines will help.
“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”
The origin of the existential crisis
Do you think that everything you’ve done so far in your life is meaningless? Do you often wonder what purpose there is in evil, inequality, or even death? Are you aware that things are going well for you but, despite this fact, you feel lost and discouraged? Existential crises often invoke endless questions that don’t always have an answer.
Due to the suffering it causes, psychology has been addressing this issue for decades. Although it’s true that, previously, the understanding of existential anguish fell within the field of philosophy, there’s currently a wide range of scientific literature on the subject. The triggers for this psychological discomfort are as follows:
- Identity crisis.
- Losing a loved one.
- Suffering from a disease
- The presence of a mood disorder.
- Suffering drastic changes. For example, losing a job, or ending a relationship.
- Having a routine life and perceiving that your dreams and desires don’t come true.
- Experiencing a sustained period of crisis. For instance, as happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Having high intellectual abilities. This is confirmed by a study conducted by the University of Innsbruck (Austria).
- During a time of transition. For example, on reaching maturity, having a child, getting old, suffering from the empty nest syndrome, etc. These are moments in which what you take for granted is demolished and uncertainty and fear appear, along with a lack of knowledge about what’ll happen next.
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How to overcome an existential crisis
There’s no need to fear an existential crisis. After all, it’s nothing more than a call from your inner being to make new decisions. In fact, it’s an opportunity for growth. Carl Jung used to say that the first half of life is dedicated to forming a healthy ego. However, in the second half, we must let it go and become who we truly are.
Although it’s true that an existential crisis is a complex and even painful psychological phenomenon, it’s useful to see it as a journey and a process of reconstruction and personal redefinition. That’s the key. To take that courageous step, you can use the following strategies:
1. Existential therapy
Existential therapy is an approach that guides you to make significant decisions toward changes that, ultimately, are in tune with your values and personal purposes. One of the leading figures in this field is Dr. Irvin D. Yalom.
In his clinical practice, Dr. Yalom guides patients in four basic areas: reformulating a new sense of life, overcoming isolation, regaining freedom, and addressing the fear of death. A study conducted by the University of Roehampton (USA) suggests that this type of therapy is useful for reducing the stress associated with transitions. It works on the following aspects:
- Increasing social connections and avoiding loneliness.
- Confronting pessimistic and limiting thoughts.
- Allowing the individual to outline new vital meanings.
- Helping them overcome uncertainty and feelings of anguish.
- Promoting the construction of a more creative, free, and purposeful life.
- The development of a more flexible and positive mental approach.
2. Defining who you are and what you expect from life
To overcome an existential crisis, it’s essential to look in the mirror and become aware of who you are and what you want. Many of these moments of painful inflection are due to the fact that your identity isn’t fully defined and strengthened. This is because you spend much of your life trying to be what others expect, fitting into other people’s molds, and letting yourself be carried away by simple inertia.
Therefore, it’s time to employ certain changes. To do this, you need to reflect on the following ideas:
- Ask yourself where you’d like to be in five years from now.
- Write down on a piece of paper what your strengths are.
- List your passions and your short and long-term dreams and desires.
- Reflect on whether who you are now is who you really want to be.
- Discover everything that you’re good at and that makes you proud.
- Think about what changes you should make to get closer to your ‘authentic self ‘.
3. Reconnect with what gives you meaning
As the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pointed out, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’. Therefore, if you feel free and motivated, you can always generate any necessary changes to create a much nobler reality.
In essence, the cornerstone for overcoming an existential crisis is to become aware of what gives you meaning in the here and now.
- Ask yourself what makes you feel good and fulfilled as a person right now.
- Bear in mind that everyone changes. So, what motivated you a few years or a few months ago may not do so now. Reflect on the areas or dimensions that currently excite you.
4. Take a break for a while to discover new perspectives
If you need to overcome an existential crisis, distance yourself for a few days from the everyday and ordinary. Break with your routine. Take some time alone to reconnect with yourself and glimpse, from a distance, where you are. Often, it’s in these moments, devoid of routine and pressure, that everything appears to be more logical.
Your mind is frequently filled with a great deal of external ‘noise’. Social media, the environment, society, its distorted messages, and today’s news. This can mean that, at any moment, things might stop having meaning for you. So, a few days of digital detox and solitude can be both healing and eye-opening.
5. Accept your emotions to change your behavior
An article published by the American Psychological Association claims that existential crises are related to our sense of mortality, our legacies, and our achievements. Somehow, there always comes a time when we take stock of what we’ve achieved and what we didn’t manage to conquer along the way.
- Every existential crisis is accompanied by feelings of loss, disappointment, and sadness that you must accept.
- Leaving room for negatively valenced emotions doesn’t mean they’ll drag you down. It implies giving them a presence and understanding their messages so you can make changes in accordance with their demands.
- An existential crisis isn’t solved by staying in the same place. It’s overcome by developing new behaviors once you understand what your internal voice is saying. You can start by making small daily changes. They only need to be simple, just to allow you to break with your routine.
- Small changes will, sooner or later, bring a major change in your life. The one that finally provides you with what you need. So, reflect on what decisions you need to make to feel better and generate more exciting plans for the future.
6. Practice gratitude
To overcome an existential crisis, you must make changes, set new goals and, also, be grateful for what you have and what gives you meaning. Because sometimes, you forget about the little things. You fail to see their beauty due to the domination of stress and the demon of anguish.
Practicing gratitude means remembering how much you love your own. It also implies knowing how to appreciate the simplest realities. For example, a nature walk, reading a book, a hug that reduces your fears, a caress that comforts you, and a landscape that inspires you. Find a balance between what you want to achieve without forgetting what you already have that’s priceless.
You might be interested to read Change Your Thoughts By Changing What You Do
Meeting new people can help you overcome an existential crisis
Everyone experiences moments dominated by crises. They’re those days when you look at everything with detachment and skepticism. They’re not pleasant experiences, for sure. One way of overcoming your confusion is to spend time with people who bring you new perspectives, interests, and hopes.
In fact, there’s nothing as magical as building friendships, those that stimulate your neurons and provide you with knowledge and motivation. So, try and avoid falling into the trap of perpetual isolation and building walls to protect yourself from a world that seems incomprehensible. Instead, open up to others, see new faces, and listen to new voices, the kinds that can help you overcome an existential crisis. Remember, change is always possible.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Andrews, M. (2016). The existential crisis. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 21(1), 104–109. https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2016-29917-010.html
- Berra, L. (2021). Existential Depression: A Nonpathological and Philosophical-Existential Approach. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 61(5), 757–765. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022167819834747?journalCode=jhpa
- Heidenreich, T., Noyon, A., Worrell, M., & Menzies, R. (2021). Existential Approaches and Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Challenges and Potential. International journal of cognitive therapy, 14(1), 209–234. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7781171/
- Vos, J., & Vitali, D. (2018). The effects of psychological meaning-centered therapies on quality of life and psychological stress: A metaanalysis. Palliative & supportive care, 16(5), 608–632. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30246682/
- Vötter B. (2019). Crisis of Meaning and Subjective Well-Being: The Mediating Role of Resilience and Self-Control among Gifted Adults. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 10(1), 15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7016625/
- Yang, W., Staps, T., & Hijmans, E. (2010). Existential crisis and the awareness of dying: the role of meaning and spirituality. Omega, 61(1), 53–69. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20533648/