Despite the weirdness of existence, most of us are able to get on with our lives and avoid debilitating feelings of despair, personal failure, and cosmic meaninglessness. But every once in a while we’re tugged out of our complacency and forced to re-evaluate our lives. Here’s what you need to know about existential crises, and how to cope with them.
As a condition, an “existential crisis” is not something that’s formally described in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5. But it’s something that psychologists and therapists are quite familiar with. It’s a condition they describe as “existential anxiety.”
An existential crisis can appear in many forms, but a fundamental aspect of it is a deep questioning and unsettled state about one’s very being, one’s sense of self, and one’s sense of personal meaning in the world.
Comet Pan-Starrs. Credit: Chris Cook/Royal Observatory Greenwich
“An existential crisis is often relational in nature, meaning that one’s relationship to everything and everyone around them is brought into question,” says Jason Winkler, a Toronto-based psychotherapist who specializes in this area. “Being-in-the-world is examined closely in an existential crisis and, often, there are no answers to one’s questions. It typically is an experience of feeling completely untethered, existentially alone and lost – even despite one having a wealth of loving friends and family, a successful career and professional reputation, material acquisitions, and religious/spiritual faith.”
Winkler says that an existential crisis is all-encompassing and can permeate every aspect of a person’s life. It can manifest in many different ways, including a loss of meaning, a feeling of deep disconnection from people close to them, despair and dread of existence (e.g. a lot of “what’s-the-point” thinking), and being preoccupied and troubled by big questions of life, like: why am I here? Do I matter at all? What is my place in the Universe?
Psychotherapist Katharine King, also from Toronto, says that existential anxiety manifests differently depending on the person and their social location.
“For example, both aging, and also extensive exposure to death (e.g. in one’s family or line of work), can result in heightened existential anxiety related to death, or what’s called ‘death anxiety’,” she told io9. Some of King’s clients experience a troubling preoccupation with fear of death.
“These clients grapple with terrifying questions that many of us manage to keep out of our explicit awareness day to day,” says King. “They may raise questions in therapy like: why live our lives fully, if we’re just going to die anyway? What will remain in this world of me, when I die? Will I be remembered? How?”
For these clients, fear of death can be an acute terror that flares up in times of stress, or loss. It’s not a simple fact of existence that recedes into the back of their mind. It is pressing.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893)
But as King points out, death anxiety can pop up in relation to other losses, too. Someone prone to death anxiety may experience dilemmas around any attachment and loss. They may wonder why they would dare to love, if there is always a risk of the relationship ending. Also, major life changes can trigger terror for someone who has a tendency toward this kind of anxiety.
There’s also existential guilt to consider, a concurrent life anxiety sometimes referred to as “ontological guilt.” This form of guilt includes deeply troubling feelings associated with one not fulfilling their own potential or having freedom that they don’t act upon.
“Freedom, itself, can become stressful and troubling—that one has a responsibility to make good use of their freedom, but becomes paralyzed in their choices and fails to act in a meaningful way,” Winkler told io9. “What presents as ‘depression and anxiety’ often isn’t biologically-based, but is ontologically/existentially-based.”
King has observed a particular existential thread in her practice among youth. Indeed, young people are more actively making decisions that will determine the general course of their lives and for some, this can be paralyzing. This is exacerbated by such factors as online culture, seismic economic shifts, and the concurrent growth of the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ with the rise of temporary and precarious work. King says that more than ever, young people feel the pressure to be a “self-starter” and assume ultimate and sole responsibility for the outcome of their lives.
“Rationally we know some of this apparent life ‘choice’ is illusory, or not meaningful,” says King. “Nevertheless, younger generations are continuously changing or adding career identities, and cultivating (multiple) online identities, and all this ‘choice’ paradoxically creates a great deal of stress—a feeling of constantly being behind the eight-ball.”
Both Winkler and King say that existential anxiety can happen to virtually anyone.
“I definitely don’t think there are populations more likely to experience existential anxiety,” says King. “As with anything regarding mental health, some populations (youth, women), may be more evident as users of mental health services but this is likely because they are better exposed to those services to start with, and also feel greater support from society in seeking services.”
King says that existential concerns can affect any human being regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, gender, age, sexuality, and so on.
“We are talking literally about the human condition; the non-negotiable aspects of human existence including death, and the dilemma of freedom versus constraint,” she told io9. “No one escapes those painful aspects of human experience, although we certainly vary in our awareness of them or willingness to reflect on them.” (Image: Van Gogh’s Sorrowing Old Man (1890)
Winkler agrees with King, but believes that some people may be psychologically predisposed to an existential crisis.
“I sometimes believe that there is a mysterious force—I don’t even know what to call it—that establishes an ‘existential orientation’ (much like a sexual orientation, a gender identity, or even a personality ‘type’) that leads certain people to be naturally oriented to question existence deeply and to have an unsettled emotional response to these questions and observances,” he says. “It is true, I believe, that existential crisis most frequently happens in mid-life (mid 30s - mid 50s), but I’ve seen it in people of all ages, even in children.”
Existential anxiety and a sense of meaning are inextricably intertwined. Work by Tatjana Schnell from the University of Innsbruck (here and here) shows that a sense of meaning can have a profound influence on our well-being and degree of happiness. Five years ago, Schnell developed a framework to chart typical existential outlooks, a four-category matrix that can be summarized like this:
- Meaningfulness: High meaningfulness and low crisis of meaning
- Crisis of meaning: Low meaningfulness and high crisis of meaning
- Existential indifference: Low meaningfulness and low crisis of meaning
- Existential conflict: High meaningfulness and high crisis of meaning
So according to the first category, some people assign a high degree of meaning to life, but aren’t troubled by it. Conversely, people in the “existential conflict” category likewise attribute high meaningfulness to life, but struggle to identify it or make sense of the world. This conflict can give rise to an outright intrapersonal crisis.
To better understand where people stand in relation to these categories, Schnell surveyed over 600 German participants. Results showed that 61% of people exhibit meaningfulness, 35% existential indifference, and 4% a crisis of meaning.
A recent study by Bruno Damásio and Sílvia Koller from the Complutense University of Madrid achieved similar results. In a survey of over 3,000 Brazilians, the researchers found 80.7% meaningfulness, 9.6% existential indifference, 5.7% crisis of meaning, and 4% existential conflict. This means that 120 out of the 3,034 people surveyed felt high meaningfulness and simultaneously were in a crisis of meaning. Cultural, religious, and socio-economic factors may help explain some of the differences between German and Brazilian participants, but it’s interesting to see that a similar proportion of people in both countries experience existential conflict.
In both studies, meaningfulness correlated positively with life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, and hope, while crisis of meaning correlated negatively with these measures. The two quirky categories of indifference and conflict were similar in these measures, though indifferent individuals measured up with higher life satisfaction, happiness, and self-esteem than existential conflict individuals.
The Damásio and Koller study also considered the quest for meaning in life and its relation to the four aforementioned groups. The breakdown of people who actively search for the meaning of life looks like this:
- Conflict: 28.55%
- Crisis: 24.95%
- Meaningfulness: 23.15%
- Indifference: 20.34%
So being in conflict leads to more searches for the meaning of life than simply having a crisis (though only slightly). Unsurprisingly, the researchers also learned that indifference led to the lowest degree of search.
Interestingly, high search for meaning in life correlated with lower life satisfaction, and lower subjective happiness, compared to medium and low search for meaning in life. And as the researchers noted in their study, “individuals who are in a state of existential conflict but are also only weakly searching for meaning exhibit the same levels of happiness as individuals in the meaningfulness group.”
This raises some serious questions about whether or not the quest for meaning in life is a productive endeavor. Clearly, it’s an uncomfortable thing to do; if a person is searching for meaning, they’re either in conflict or crisis. What’s more, if they’re searching, they’re probably unhappy or dissatisfied with something in their life.
So if obsessing over the meaning of life is unhelpful, what’s a person to do when caught in the throes of existential angst?
Life is filled with these, but it’s hard not to wonder about the paths not taken (credit: Nicholas Mutton/CC 2.o)
As Katharine King told me, it’s often difficult for us to confront the guilt associated with not living our lives as fully as we believe or know we could—and the more advanced we are in the life course, the more complicated this becomes.
“To quit smoking after 40 years, or give up any destructive behavior, or to leave a relationship that has been unhappy for decades, or change careers—inevitably, these changes can bring up the question of why a person did not do them before now,” she says.
Inspired by the work of Stanford University psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, King advises her clients to not only face their fear of doing something risky and difficult, but to accept that their life would have taken a different path had they made this change earlier in life. She reminds her clients that what is past is done and cannot be changed, and that they likely did the best the could at the time. With that said, she also tells them that the future is undetermined and may contain new possibilities.
“Simply telling this to someone isn’t likely to produce an immediate emotional shift or lessen their existential anxiety,” says King, but “clients need to use therapy to slowly integrate new ways of thinking and feeling at a deeper psychological level as they do the emotional work of being aware of their own fears, accepting their losses, and increasing their capacity to embrace new possibilities.”
At its best, Yalom-style “existential psychotherapy” affirms will, creativity, self-actualization, and human potential while allowing for inevitable limitations and constraints. King tells her clients, particularly those under the age of 40, that the awareness of freedom and choice needs to be tempered by acceptance of inevitable limitations, and acceptance for risk and uncertainty.
“Despite our best efforts, life often does not turn out as we expect it should,” she says. “For younger clients who are paralyzed or overwhelmed by life decisions, this can lead to focused work in therapy on being more comfortable with uncertainty, tolerating failures as valuable learning, and valuing process over outcomes.”
When dealing with existential angst, Winkler says we should seek out receptive, understanding, and empathic listeners, and to engage in meaningful pursuits in life. (Credit: Colin Gray, CC 2.0)
Jason Winkler believes that good relational, human connection can offer most people a great way of elevating their mood and outlook on their personal situation.
“If one talks to another person about their existential anxieties, and is met with resonance and understanding, it often decreases the despair associated with existential isolation,” he says, adding that it’s important for people to keep putting their thoughts and feelings into words.
“I believe that the best responses to an existential crisis are to keep seeking out receptive, understanding, and empathic listeners, and to engage in meaningful pursuits in life—however ‘small’ or ‘large’ those things are—from sitting on a park bench, knitting, while listening to the wind rustling the leaves in the trees, to volunteering for a humanitarian aid organization, to enjoying relational connection with someone special,” says Winkler. “Discovering a sense of purpose to getting up and engaging in life everyday is hugely important.”
Additional reporting by Levi Gadye.