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Who am I? What’s the point of my life? What can I contribute to the world? These are big questions you may have asked yourself from time to time. And maybe you came up with strong, clear answers. But these questions can also be troubling. At those times, you may be going through what’s called an existential crisis.
Read more to find out how to recognize and overcome a situation like this.
What is an existential crisis?
In a nutshell, it’s a period of time when you’re struggling with your identity or your place in the world (Andrews, 2016). Experts have also defined it as a moment or time when you question the meaning of life. You may feel dissatisfied about the direction your life is going or about things that happened to you in the past (Butènaitè, 2016; Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
“Existential crisis” is not a recognized mental health condition. It’s not part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—a handbook health care providers rely on when trying to spot and diagnose mental health disorders. So, you can’t be diagnosed with an “existential crisis.”
Still, many psychologists recognize it as a common phenomenon. They’ve mapped out its symptoms, causes, and some helpful ways to deal with it. It’s also sometimes called an “identity crisis.”
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The symptoms of existential crisis
There are many. They can be broken down into three categories or components: emotional, cognitive, and behavioral (Butènaitè, 2016).
Emotional symptoms include (Butènaitè, 2016):
- Emotional pain or distress
- Feelings of despair or helplessness
- Feelings of meaninglessness
- Insecurity or uncertainty about your identity
- Emotional vulnerability
- Mental health conditions
- Panic attacks (Andrews, 2016)
- Depression (Cleveland Clinic, 2020)
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Cognitive symptoms include (Butènaitè, 2016):
- Negative thoughts
- Thinking that your life has lost purpose or meaning
- Thinking that you’ve lost your values or ideas about yourself
- Asking yourself questions about what you’re doing or why you’re doing it
- Suicidal thoughts (Cleveland Clinic, 2020)
- Feeling disconnected from the people in your life
Behavioral symptoms include (Butènaitè, 2016):
- Breaking off relationships
- Substance abuse
- Antisocial behavior
The different types of existential crises
Just about anyone, at any age, for any reason, can experience an existential crisis. But there are specific moments or circumstances in life when an existential crisis is more likely to happen.
Experts also sometimes break these down into three specific types or categories (Andrews, 2016). These are:
This is an existential crisis that tends to occur during a person’s late teens or early 20s. It comes from feelings of uncertainty or insecurity about the future. The move from high school to college is one trigger of a sophomore crisis. It’s also wrapped up with concerns about choosing a career path or figuring out the best way to secure the brightest possible future for yourself.
This time of life tends to involve significant changes and important decisions. And these are the sorts of situations that, at any age, can produce an existential crisis (Andrews, 2016).
Adult existential crisis
Thoughts about your “legacy”—what people will remember you for—can promote a late existential crisis. Another trigger is a specific regret, or the feeling that you made an error or mistake that you need to make up for before it’s too late (Andrews, 2016).
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Late existential crisis
A midlife crisis falls into this category, but so do existential crises that happen much later in life. These are often caused by an urge to make changes in one’s life before illness, death, or other limiting aspects of life make such changes impossible.
Thoughts about your “legacy”—what you’ll be remembered for—can promote a late existential crisis. Another trigger is some kind of regret, or the feeling that you made an error or mistake that you need to make up for before it’s too late (Andrews, 2016).
Causes and risk factors of existential crisis
People who are high achievers or highly ambitious may be at greater risk for an existential crisis. Holding yourself and your life to a high standard may make you more likely to feel that it has not met your expectations. These feelings can contribute to an existential crisis (Andrews, 2016).
An illness diagnosis or some other event that makes you aware of your mortality is another trigger (Yang, 2010). Meanwhile, any major life event, major loss, or some other change that shakes up your life or makes you question its direction can be a triggering event (Cleveland Clinic, 2020.)
How to deal with an existential crisis
There are a handful of helpful things you can do to manage an existential crisis. Therapy, for example, can help you make sense of what you’re feeling. A therapist can also help you develop new strategies to feel better (Butènaitè, 2016).
Keeping a “gratitude journal” may be one helpful strategy. This means writing down what you’re thankful for, what you enjoy, and what gives your life meaning. By writing all this down regularly, you can start to identify where and how to spend your time (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). Some research has also found that gratitude journaling and other related practices can help relieve anxiety and depression (Cregg, 2021).
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Reconnecting with your friends, family members, and loved ones can also be helpful. An existential crisis can be very isolating. Spending time with the people you care most about can help you overcome that isolation and feel more grounded.
Finally, redirecting your time and energy can be helpful. For example, devote more time to your favorite hobbies. Existential crises often stem from losses—of a job or relationship. If these losses spark a crisis, that may be a sign you were devoting too much of yourself to those areas. Channeling more of your life toward hobbies can be helpful (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
While the word “crisis” can sound scary or negative, an existential crisis isn’t always a bad thing. While it can lead to mental health issues, it can also provide an opportunity for you to make changes that will be good for your health and your life in the long run (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
- Andrews, M. (2016). The existential crisis. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 21(1), 104-109. doi: 10.1037/bdb0000014. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2016-29917-010.html
Butènaitè, J., Sondaitè, J., & Mockus, A. (2016). Components of existential crisis: A theoretical analysis. International Journal of Psychology: Biopsychosocial Approach, 2016(18). doi: 10.7220/2345-024X.18.1. Retrieved from https://www.ceeol.com/search/article-detail?id=461679
Cleveland Clinic. (2020, June). 6 ways to overcome an existential crisis. Retrieved 24 June, 2021, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/ways-to-overcome-an-existential-crisis/
Cregg, D.R., Cheavens, J.S. (2021) Gratitude interventions: effective self-help? A meta-analysis of the impact on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Journal of Happiness Studies 22, 413–445 (2021). doi: 10.1007/s10902-020-00236-6. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-020-00236-6
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. doi: 10.2190/OM.61.1.c. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2190/OM.61.1.c/
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.