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How to identify (and survive) an existential crisis

woman with curly blue hair is taking her time in dealing with the existential crisis that keeps her awake at night

Do you ever lose sleep pondering the true meaning of life?

Do you often lie awake at night, plagued with thoughts about the inevitability of death? Welcome to the club – it looks like you're having an existential crisis.

But don't worry - these are normal feelings, and people all over the world experience them from time to time.  Human existence is fundamentally weird, and it's natural to lose yourself thinking about it every now and then.

If it's happening to you, remember that you're not alone. And you can find some comfort in a few different ways, including opening up, changing your perspective, and sharing your burden.

Below, we'll help you identify each symptom of this temporary malaise, get through it unscathed, and understand that existential thoughts don't have to be something to worry about. They're a crucial part of being human.

Table of contents
What's an existential crisis?
What are the symptoms of an existential crisis?
Are existential crises normal?
What happens during an existential crisis?
How does one recover from an existential crisis?

What's an existential crisis?

An existential crisis (or existential dread) describes a particular state of mind characterized by insistent questioning of one's meaning, value, or purpose in life.

It might start as a fleeting feeling that only lasts a few minutes. A sort of "what am I doing here?" revelation. But when these normal thoughts of 'existentialism' repeatedly bubble up to the forefront of your mind and cause persistent sadness or anxiety that gets in the way of regular life – that's when you'd call it an existential crisis.

It's easy to feel lost in a universe that seems to exist for no particular reason. That's how most scientists will see the world, and they're right about most things – but this outlook doesn't exactly help when you're in a crisis of meaning.

Religion does provide comfort to those who seek it, but it certainly doesn't come with all the answers.

Which God should I listen to? Is it the Judeo-Chrisitan Yahweh or Quran's Allah? What about Thor, Zeus, and Brahma? Have I been brought into this life with a purpose, or do I have to create my own? Is the universe cold, empty, and lifeless, or is there someone else out there?

If this is the first time you find yourself in an all-consuming state of mind filled with unanswerable questions, you likely won't be able to control your feelings of profound worry, dread, and helplessness – also known as existential fear. You might feel like you're losing control, and your mental health might not be in top shape.

Before you jump to conclusions or begin practicing more compulsive thinking, take a deep breath.

You need to realize that existential crises don't always just pop out of the blue. Traumatizing events (e.g., losing a loved one, being diagnosed with cancer / degenerative disease) can trigger crises – and that's perfectly normal.

Even disappointment and dissatisfaction with the current state of your life are often enough to elevate this existential anxiety.

Doom and gloom aside, there's always a silver lining. Existential depression brings questions that can help you reevaluate what really matters in your life. With the right action plan, you can come out stronger and more connected to your goals and dreams than ever.

What are the 5 types of existential crises?

In his book Existential Psychotherapy, American psychiatrist Irvin Yalom outlines four major existential concerns:

Death: Probably the most common of all existential crises, it usually comes as the realization of death kicks in. It can happen at any age, but people in their 50s and 60s are particularly vulnerable. Imagine turning 60, and swiftly realizing that more than half of your life is already behind you. It's an unsettling thought, and it's enough to make you question everything.

Freedom: According to Yalom, freedom is the absence of structure. When there's no one to tell us what to do, we might struggle with the responsibility that freedom brings. For example, research shows that incarceration has a psychological toll that continues long after a prisoner is freed. For many former inmates, life beyond strict routines and rules feels overwhelming. Children coming of age and having to make life-defining choices might experience similar psychological distress.

Isolation: Above all, humans are social beings. We thrive in environments where we can interact and form bonds with the people around us. If, for some reason, that's taken away from us (like in the case of an illness or pandemic), we can begin to feel lonely and isolated. What's the point of doing anything if we've got no one to share our experiences with?

Meaninglessness: When people feel they're too insignificant to bring about any change, they might start questioning the meaning of life itself. What's the point of trying to make a difference if we're all going to die soon anyway? The loss of meaning is often the result of other life concerns (e.g., one might struggle to find meaning in the face of death, another might lose motivation as the result of social isolation).

A crisis of emotion is often also listed as a type of existential crisis. This refers to the denial of negative emotions, which often leads to a false sense of happiness. People who don't acknowledge their feelings are more likely to ask existential questions. Bottling things up can cause thoughts to rattle around your head and disturb your ability to rest or concentrate properly.

What are the symptoms of an existential crisis?

Many of the symptoms of existential crises are similar to the symptoms that accompany mental health issues:

  • Intense worry: You ponder the meaning and purpose of life a bit too often.
  • Anxiety: You find it difficult to find peace when you're alone with your thoughts. Here are some helpful tips to help you break the cycle.
  • Depression: When your anxiety takes over, and you can no longer control your response, symptoms of depression (e.g., feeling sad all the time, losing motivation, avoiding others, suicidal ideation) might come to the forefront. This guide explains depression and burnout in more detail.
  • Substance abuse: You might abuse substances to temporarily take your mind off the big questions and provide some pleasurable distraction (which, of course, usually comes with downsides after they wear off).
  • OCD: Existential obsessive-compulsive disorder is a real thing, and it occurs when questions about the meaning of life follow you wherever you go.

Remember that worry, anxiety, and depression only point toward an existential crisis when we feel the need to find a deeper meaning in life.

(If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek immediate help or call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 in the United States or visit this page for a list of international numbers.

Don't be afraid to call - people are ready to listen and help, whatever your circumstances.)

Are existential crises normal?

Yes, existential crises are normal. They can happen to anyone and at any age. All it takes is a significant life change, especially one you might struggle to adapt to. You may catch yourself asking some serious questions, such as:

  • Who am I?
  • What's the meaning of life?
  • Is death the end? If so, why do anything?

These are all valid questions that philosophers and existentialists ask themselves every day. Are they victims of a never-ending existential crisis? Perhaps, but even so, they still pull through. They might not have the most satisfactory answers, but somehow, they don't seem as fazed as you and I. Perhaps thinking about the difficult things more causes them to be at peace with the uncertainty.

If they can see past the fear of the unknown and lead normal lives, so can you – it's just a matter of changing your perspective and building your resilience.

What are the causes of existential crises?

Here are some of the most common causes of existential crises:

What is the average age to have an existential crisis?

Anyone can experience an existential crisis at any age, but things seem to get a lot worse as we move on from adulthood to late adulthood. By that time, we've had enough time to observe death around us.

Whether it's the loss of a dear family member, a loved one, or simply bad news about our health, learning to live with our fear of death becomes ever so difficult.

Resistance (or inability) to change can also trigger existential crises. Teenagers and young adults with tremendous academic and extracurricular success can also develop similar feelings of purposelessness when exposed to new environments.

Until recently, existential crises were often only discussed within the broader context of other mental diseases. But as more and more people approach mental health professionals with similar feelings of worry and unrest, it has become apparent that existential crises and mental disorders don't always go hand in hand.

What happens during an existential crisis?

Think of an existential crisis as a crisis of meaning. Negative emotions pour in, overwhelming us as we lose our sense of purpose. If you experience constant existential despair, you might:

  • Obsess over death. You can't wrap your head around the concept of not existing. Thoughts about life, death, and the meaning behind everything live rent-free in your head. That's normal to a degree, but when it becomes obsessive, it can take over your life and suck the joy out of everything you do.
  • Worry more than you used to. If you're preoccupied with things that didn't stir much concern before (e.g., world hunger, climate change, natural disasters), anxiety may be to blame. Notice how the common denominator of all those issues is your lack of power to control and solve them.
  • Feel remorse and regret about things you can't change. Existential dread is often the result of swift life changes that we cannot handle properly. Regret can make you question your love for your spouse, your choice to get married and have children, the decision to follow a trodden path instead of pursuing a more exciting career – no life event is safe from a midlife crisis. Owning your choices and becoming more assertive can make you feel a lot better.
  • Feel tired and unmotivated all the time. If you can't find a satisfactory answer about why there's something instead of nothing, what's life's purpose? You might skip work, mistreat friends and family members, and even commit crimes. Questioning everything might be your way of dealing with your lack of intrinsic motivation.
  • Avoid social interactions. As primarily social beings, human interaction and connectedness are vital to our well-being. If you're constantly feeling tired and unmotivated, you likely won't want to share your negative thoughts with friends and family. Thus, you miss out on important social events, giving in to feelings of isolation and meaninglessness.

If you feel like you're leading a meaningless life while also struggling to push away suicidal thoughts, you might want to seek professional help ASAP. Existential therapy can help, but a full examination might reveal underlying mental health conditions.

How does one recover from an existential crisis?

Overcoming an existential crisis is actually a lot easier than you might think. You need to find a purpose to enjoy and cherish life, and if you can't, it's up to you to create it.

Hack your mindset and wellbeing

When you're in a funk, it can feel next to impossible to shake yourself out of it without outside support.

But, it can be daunting to share your deepest, most profound internal ramblings with others—especially when you aren't feeling the most confident.

Fingerprint for Success offers a variety of AI-powered online coaching programs that can help you make sense of your existential crisis, discover your life's purpose, improve your wellbeing, and more.

The programs are free and entirely confidential between you and AI Coach Marlee. Plus, sessions only take 5-15 minutes, twice a week, so being 'too busy' is not an excuse that works.

90% of people feel significantly better by the end of the 9-week Vital Wellbeing program, so the overwhelming chances are, you will too.

Change your perspective

Philosophers have pondered the meaning of life for millennia. These things can be easier if you're religious – these worries are in the hands of your divine entity of choice. If you're agnostic or atheist, things get a little bit more complicated.

Søren Kierkegaard is widely considered the first existential philosopher, although he didn't ever use the term himself. Søren wrote several critical texts on religion, morality, ethics, and psychology, proposing that the quest for inherent, objective meaning is pointless. In his work, he urges people to live as passionately and authentically as possible.

Similarly, Albert Camus encouraged people to endure the meaninglessness of life by imposing meaning on it. He coined the term absurd hero: a person who knows life is absurd but still manages to get through it with a smile on their face.

Talking to someone close to you about your existential worries might help you see things from a different perspective. What do they think is life's meaning? What fuels their day and keeps them going?

Keep a gratitude journal

The odds of you being alive are 1 in 10^2,685,000. They're so small that, based on math alone, you don't – or rather shouldn't – exist. Life might not be what we want it to be, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be grateful that we get to live it. Keep note of everything you're thankful for and everything that makes life worth living for you.

Putting it into words will likely make you feel a bit silly for asking such a question in the first place. Of course, your life has meaning! If you're not convinced that being thankful for it is key to happiness and success, you need to read up on the power of gratitude.

On the other hand, the odds of you dying are 1 in 1. It's definitely going to happen—sorry. If you think about it, there's no reason to worry about something that's inevitable. Every time you walk into the cinema to watch a movie, you know that it will eventually end.

There's nothing you can do to change that, but still, you don't just walk away. You put that thought aside and try to enjoy the viewing as much as possible—if it's a good movie, of course (but you can't know that unless you watch).

Life is the same, and the odds of you living a good life are on you. Stop overanalyzing things and worrying about how quickly everything goes. Come to terms with the fact that some questions cannot be answered, and try to enjoy the process as much as possible. Happiness is, after all, a state of mind.

Create your own meaning

Consciously creating meaning is often a turning point for many who experience existential dread. They realize that the only honest answer to "what's the meaning of life" is simply "life." That's all we get, and it's enough. Life itself is the gift, and you can put your mind at ease knowing that your actions, no matter how small, do make a difference.

How do you create meaning? If you're content with life itself being the meaning of life, you'll want to do good for goodness' sake. Concentrating on the little things that make your life worthwhile is the secret to happiness. You might have heard of ikigai, a Japanese term that describes this very concept.

But it's important to remember that you can't always come to a striking epiphany that reveals the answer to you in a single hit.

Creating meaning is a process, not a task to check off your to-do list.

Breaking through self-sabotage and cultivating meaningful days for yourself is a skill you can develop - if you'd like to learn more, check out our Vital Wellbeing coaching program.

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