Existential crises and challenges

What is an existential crisis?

The term “existential crisis” refers to stressful life conditions, events, or changes that may cause you to question your sense of identity and/or the ways that you derive meaning from your life.

The concept, which draws upon the philosophical tradition of existentialism, might be summed up as “Who am I? And why am I here?"

The life conditions and events involved in existential crises vary, but they often correlate with a significant phase in your personal development.

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Situations in which an existential crisis might occur include:

  • A quarter-life crisis in early adulthood

  • A mid-life crisis in middle age

  • A change in the roles you play in one or more areas of your life

    • Such as becoming a new parent,

    • Questioning your career path

    • Moving to a new country.

Feeling uncertain about the course of your life is normal and rational. For example, we’ve all wondered at times whether we’re making the right choices about our careers and partners. Sometimes this sense of uncertainty helps us make better decisions.

However, when these difficulties feel especially urgent or persistent, they can become overwhelming.

How common are existential crises?

Because existential crises are not a clinically defined mental health condition, there is little research on their overall prevalence. They are also tied to such basic questions of human existence that it can be difficult to trace how frequently these common concerns develop into worrisome patterns.

However, some studies suggest patterns of occurrence in specific kinds of existential crises. For example, research in the UK found that a majority of young adults studied had experienced at least some aspects of a quarter-life crisis. 

What are some symptoms of an existential crisis?

Symptoms associated with existential crises vary, but some common examples are as follows:

  • Anxiety or excessive worry: You may be unusually preoccupied with worry about the meaning of your life, and/or the choices you have made.

  • Persistent sadness, regret, or depression: You might find yourself dwelling on the path you have taken in life so far, and feeling sad that things have not gone differently. 

  • Feeling overwhelmed: Existential crises often include an increased awareness of the difficulty of life or even the reality of death, which can be overwhelming to contemplate.

Different types of existential crises

Existential crises come in many forms. A few common scenarios might be:

  • Entering a new life phase: People who are finishing college, entering middle life, or retiring are all examples of individuals who might find themselves questioning who they are and what they are doing with their lives.

  • Experiencing a change in relationships or family roles: Significant relational changes such as getting married, going through a breakup, having a new baby, or having one’s children leave home might lead to an existential crisis

  • Questioning a career path: Whether leaving an old job, taking on a new one, or considering a new career altogether, finding meaning and belonging in work can be a major theme of existential crises.

  • Living in a new place: Particularly for those immigrating to a new country, the process of moving and adapting to a new community might connect to crises around meaning and identity.

What to do if you’re experiencing an existential crisis

If you’re experiencing the kinds of challenges described here, consider the following options:

  • Therapy for existential depression. Find a therapist who can help you navigate challenging changes and life circumstances. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)

  • Journaling. Keeping a written record of your thoughts and feelings around your existential challenges  may help you clarify your questions about your identity and how you make meaning in your life.

  • Meditation or mindfulness practices. You can experiment with meditation or other mindfulness practices through classes or apps. Studies have shown that these practices can help reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety that may accompany existential crises.

What should I look for in a therapist for existential crises?

Therapists differ in their approaches to treating existential crises. Common approaches include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • Existential Psychotherapy

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

  • Psychodynamic Therapy

  • Interpersonal Psychotherapy

  • Mindfulness Practices

Find therapists specializing in existential challenges near you: