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What is an existential crisis, and how do you overcome it?

August 30, 2021 - 17 min read


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What is an existential crisis?

Are existential crises common?

How to identify when you are having an existential crisis

What are the causes of an existential crisis?

What are the symptoms of an existential crisis?

Types of existential crisis

8 ways to defeat an existential crisis

When should you see a doctor?

You don't have to feel this way

At one point or another in our lives, chances are we all have said something along the lines of “I’m having an existential crisis.” It’s a concept we are quite familiar with, yet it is not often that we stop and think “What is an existential crisis? How do I know if I’m having one? How can I overcome it?”

What is an existential crisis?

An existential crisis, by definition, refers to the ensemble of feelings and questions we have to do with the meaning and purpose of our life. These questions aren't easy to find answers to, and this can leave us feeling stuck. We feel unsure of how to respond or which way to go, and it can even impact our lives in a negative way if these feelings persist or worsen.

Existential crises are often be associated with a negative impact on one’s life, but we forget the positive effect it can have. An existential crisis means we have the opportunity to get back in touch with our values, meaning and purpose, and with what we want to make of our lives. This can help us evaluate, plan and adapt our actions and direction in order to lead the life we want and will be happy with.

Are existential crises common?

The truth is, existential crises are more common than you may think, and they have no limit when it comes to age or gender. Everyone can experience an existential crisis at some point.

So why are they so common? Well, they usually happen whenever we – as human beings – are faced with circumstances, changes, or transitions in our lives that are difficult for us to adapt to, or that leave us wondering if this is the direction we want our life to take. Whether these transitions are expected or not, we may feel like we have limitations that leave us questioning the direction our life is taking.


How to identify when you are having an existential crisis

When people experience an existential crisis, it is very common for them to feel lost, uneasy, and as though they have lost touch with their values and purpose in life.

You may be feeling this way, and wondering whether what you're experiencing is depression or a crisis of meaning. Here are 5 signs that you may be experiencing an existential crisis:

1. Constant worry

You may be experiencing thoughts and existential depression that you are unable to set aside during your day-to-day life. It may feel as though every time you are not distracted by something, your mind tends to question the same things and have the same thoughts.

2. Symptoms of anxiety and depression

These negative emotions come as a consequence of this constant worry. Our thoughts determine the emotions we feel and, subsequently, our body’s response. Therefore, these repetitive thoughts leave us feeling anxious and sad.

This is why, unfortunately, existential crises can really damage our mental health if we let them get out of hand.

3. Decrease in motivation

The base of our motivation lies in our “why:” why we do what we do. If we are questioning our “why” and feel as if we don’t know the answer just yet, we may find ourselves experiencing a lack of motivation. The disconnection and sense of meaninglessness that accompanies an existential crisis makes it difficult to see the point in getting anything done.

4. Low energy levels

Our energy can decrease due to variables such as mood, sleep, and diet. If our mood is low, we won’t feel like moving or engaging in as many activities as we usually do. Newton's first law of motion states that “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion.” We can use this as a metaphor to understand our bodies. The less we move and engage in activities, the harder it is to get up and do it, and therefore, the less energy we have.

If we have an irregular sleep pattern or an unbalanced diet, our energy levels will be affected. Treat your sleep and diet as a priority, because it can determine your mental health in the same way many other variables do.

5. Decrease in social activity

This can also be caused by a lack of motivation and energy and can have a very negative effect on our mental health. Our social relationships are a fundamental part of our sense of support and connectedness, and the lack of them can leave us feeling lonely and disconnected. This feeds into symptoms of anxiety and depression.


What are the causes of an existential crisis?

The causes of an existential crisis vary from person to person, depending on their life, circumstances, values, and desires. Here are a few situations that could trigger an existential crisis:

1. Big life changes

This could include a very large list of possibilities, from having your first child to moving to a new country. Not every big change is going to elicit an existential crisis, and it also depends on the person, so what determines whether or not we experience this with a certain change?

Whether or not a life event triggers an existential crisis is determined by the meaning this change has when it comes to our direction and our purpose. If the change isn’t in accordance with – or if it leaves us questioning — our purpose, we may start to experience an existential crisis.

2. Unexpected turns

This is similar to a big life change, but an unexpected turn is an unplanned change that happens suddenly without expecting it. For example, we are fired from the job we thought we were making so much progress at, or our life plans are put on hold due to an inevitable cause (COVID-19 pandemic is a big one that comes to mind).

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3. Not feeling content with our life’s direction

This can happen in any given circumstance, whenever we stop to analyze our life and realize that we don’t want to go in a certain direction anymore. For example, we may realize that our career isn’t fulfilling our purpose anymore and we need something different to make us feel happy again.

4. Feeling out of control

The loss of control can leave us feeling as though we are in the middle of a strong river current, and we can’t get a hold of anything to keep us steady and above water. Just as in this metaphor, a lack of control can make us feel like we don’t own any part of our lives. We feel helpless to go in any direction but the one the current is taking us in.

5. Loss

Whether it is a family member who has passed away or a breakup that leaves us feeling broken, the loss of someone dear to us can cause an existential crisis. This is especially true when this person was a fundamental pillar in our lives.

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What are the symptoms of an existential crisis?

1. Worry
We have constant thoughts about the meaning and purpose of our lives, and often this has a negative effect on our mental health.

2. Anxiety or depression
This is usually the result of ruminating on the negative thoughts that flood our minds when we're feeling lost.

3. Loss of motivation
We don’t feel like doing the things that we used to enjoy doing.

4. Decrease in social activity
We don’t make as many plans to see our friends and loved ones, and start to spend less time nurturing those relationships, which are fundamental pillars in our support system.
5. Feeling lost and out of control
When we lose touch with our values and purpose, we can often feel out of touch with ourselves — as though we are in a dark room and can’t find the light switch.
6. Substance abuse
You may find yourself drinking more or leaning on other substances to quiet recurring thoughts or help you feel something else.


Types of existential crisis

1. The meaning of life

In this kind of existential crisis, we question our life and its meaning. We start to wonder what it is all for and ask questions about our ultimate purpose for leading the life that we lead.

2.Questioning our values and reasons

This crisis usually happens when we face a crossroads and don’t know which direction to take. We feel as though we need to reevaluate the values that we base our life on, because we may not be fully happy with the ones we were following up until this point.

3. Big life transition

Whenever we face a change that means a redirection in our lives, we may experience an existential crisis. This can happen because the change was unexpected, or because we have to adapt to it and rediscover ourselves in the process.

4. Loss

With any loss comes grief, and with grief sometimes comes an existential crisis. When we have to face a loss and a reality without someone or something, we can start to question things we never have before.

5. Remaining true to ourselves

In life, we can sometimes feel like our actions are disconnected from the person we want to be. This kind of existential crisis can help us evaluate the values we are following and redirect (if necessary) to the ones that will make us remain true to the person we strive to be.

8 ways to defeat an existential crisis

1. Rely on loved ones

Support from our friends and family is crucial when facing an existential crisis. It can help us feel less lonely and receive external input that may help us overcome it.

2. Express how you feel

Don’t bottle things up or ignore the way you are feeling. It is important to listen to what this crisis is telling you, and why it is happening. If you treat it as your ally and not as your enemy, you could find great benefits to it. Try writing down your thoughts and existential questions, and analyzing them in order to understand what they are trying to tell you.

3. Find joy in the small things

Whenever we have any type of crisis, it may feel like everything is grey-looking, and we may find it difficult to enjoy the things we used to. You will be amazed at how much gratitude can help in these circumstances. Try writing down the things you are grateful for at the end of the day, and find joy in the small things.

4. Focus on what you can control

It can be easy to feel out of control in an existential crisis. This is why focusing on what you can control can be very grounding. Once you focus on this, analyze it and take control of the things you can. And as for the things you can’t control…let them go.

5. Keep a gratitude journal

Use a pen and paper, and aim to write down as many things that you are grateful for. They can big or small. You can be grateful for your health, your home, or for a glass of clean water. This will help you reconnect to your life (which is pretty amazing, when you think about it) and get back in touch with your values and purpose.

6. Practice mindfulness and meditation.

This is a great way to connect with your inner self and give your thoughts a space to flourish and be explored. Meditation can help us feel grounded and in touch with ourselves again.

7. Join a support group

The antidote to existential anxiety is connection. Meeting with others, listening, and sharing your experience can help you handle grief, feelings of isolation, or whatever's at the root of the existential crisis.

8. Reconnect with your life's purpose

At the root of our existential concerns is the fear that we're living a meaningless life. This is often rooted in frustration. Reconnecting to the difference you want to make in the world may be a turning point in your existential concerns.

When should you see a doctor?

An existential crisis shares a number of symptoms with other mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. If you're prone to depressive or anxious episodes, it may be difficult to tell what's causing your feelings without professional help. Be especially mindful if you feel or experience any of the following:

  • You feel as if you are drowning
  • The thoughts of meaninglessness are consuming your life
  • Your feelings are interfering with your day-to-day life (including hygiene, relationships, or work)
  • Your mental health or well-being is seriously impacted
  • You're self-medicating with controlled substances or alcohol
  • You have suicidal thoughts, especially if you have a plan

If you recognize yourself in even one of these symptoms, reach out to a mental health professional for immediate help. You definitely do not have to go through this process alone.

If you’re feeling stressed, emotionally tired, or in crisis and need to speak with someone immediately, please call 800-273-TALK (8255). They answer every call, and they’re available 24/7.

Feelings of existential anxiety are normal, and everyone experiences them to some degree in their lives. In fact, there are even counselors that specialize in existential therapy. Discussing your concerns with a professional may help you gain clarity and reconnect to your life's purpose.

You don't have to feel this way

Having an existential crisis can be a very isolating experience. However, it can also be a turning point in a person's life. The antidote to the feelings of disconnection, frustration, and meaninglessness is to find ways to reconnect. Spend time with loved ones, reach out to a therapist, or even play with a pet. You're not alone, and your life matters more than you know. Whether you're experiencing a quarter-life crisis or existential crisis, BetterUp can help. 

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Published August 30, 2021

Alexia Roncero

BetterUp Care Coach

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