You've seen memes, movie scenes and tweets about them. You've heard philosophers, new parents and celebrities talk about them. And, honestly, you've probably experienced one yourself. The existential crisis is a central part of the human experience, but what is it, really? We've outlined everything you need to know about existential crises, including what they are, how to know you're having one and how to deal with them. And before you ask in the comments: yes, writing sad poetry is a totally fine (albeit, cheesy) coping mechanism.
What is an existential crisis?
An existential crisis is a moment when someone questions whether their life has meaning, purpose or value. An existential crisis often leads to questions about the meaning of human existence more generally. Experiencing an existential crisis is common, and can happen to anyone; almost everyone questions their life's purpose. However, consistent existential crisis could be tied to depression or a negative outlook on life resulting from stress.
Types of existential crisis.
1. Crisis of mortality.
Events such as birthdays or deaths that may force you to confront your own mortality and lead to internal questions about your life's path, spurring an existential crisis. In this type of crisis, you might consider the meaning of life and death, and ask questions like: "What happens after death? What is the point of living if everyone must die? Why is life so short?"
2. Crisis of meaning.
Finding meaning or personal purpose in life can make it feel worth living. However, reflecting on your life's journey and feeling that you've made no significant mark on the world (or will never make a significant mark on the world) may cause a crisis of meaning. You might consider the purpose of existing if nothing you do feels impactful and ask questions like: "What is the meaning of life? Why do I exist?"
3. Crisis of emotional embodiment.
Ironically, blocking negative thoughts and feelings from our thinking can cause existential crisis. While blocking pain and suffering can lead to temporary happiness, a lack of emotional breadth can also make existence feel hollow. Refusing to embody your true emotions can make you feel shallow and cause you to ask questions like: "Will I ever feel like I am really living? Am I missing out on something? Why can I not connect with the world around me? Who am I, really?"
4. Crisis of freedom.
Most people believe that we have the freedom to make our own choices. While this is a more authentic way to live than having someone else make our decisions for us, it also requires us to take personal responsibility for the outcomes of our actions. This freedom can be overwhelming and trigger anxiety and questions like: "Am I making the right choices with my life? Am I using my agency correctly? What end goal should I be pursuing with my actions?"
5. Crisis of isolation.
Relationships provide many benefits to humans, including emotional support, satisfaction and personal development. However, even relationships we invest a lot into will end and even people we love will disappoint us, causing feelings of isolations and futility. This type of crisis results in questions like: "What is the point of investing in others if everyone leaves? Will I always feel alone? Is life pointless, if even the most precious of investments leave me empty handed?"
Signs or symptoms of an existential crisis.
Questioning your life's purpose is common. However, being unable to find satisfying answers to life's big questions can lead to internal hardship. Here are signs or symptoms that your concerns have reached the level of existential crisis.
1. Existential anxiety
The questions of an existential crisis may cause nervousness and stress in your everyday life. You may experience preoccupation with the afterlife or your life plan, racing thoughts, racing heartbeat, or panic attacks. The anxiety of an existential crisis may cause discomfort in your everyday life.
2. Existential depression
During an existential crisis, you may experience the symptoms of depression as you question your life's purpose. These symptoms may include fatigue, headaches, persistent sadness, loss of interest and feelings of hopelessness. You may question your life's purpose, or consider ending your life. If you're thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Helpline is available 24/7 in the United States at 1-800-273-8255.
3. Obsessive thoughts
Existential crisis may result in obsessive thoughts about the meaning of life. You may ask yourself the same questions over and over again, ask those questions of others or spend hours researching them.
4. Mental fatigue
Experiencing any of the above psycho-emotional symptoms may result in mental fatigue, making you too tired to do normal tasks or to operate at your full mental capacity.
Times when people commonly experience existential crisis.
While everyone is prone to considering their life's meaning, existential crisis is especially common at certain times in life. Here are six examples of when people commonly experience existential crisis.
1. After the death of a loved one.
The death of a loved one and periods of reflection on their life may cause you to question your own life's purpose, resulting in existential crisis.
2. After a major life event.
A major life event such as a change in marital status or birth of a child may cause you to reflect on and question the life path that brought you to that event — and cause you to question how to find purpose in your life moving forward.
3. After a near-death experience or other traumatic event.
A near-death experience, diagnosis or other traumatic event may change your outlook on life and it's purpose, triggering an existential crisis.
4. After a landmark birthday.
A hallmark birthday, such as your 50th, may cause you to question what you've done with your life up to this point, and can lead to questions about your purpose — past, present and future.
5. During a "mid-life crisis."
Like experiencing an existential crisis after a landmark birthday, sometimes just the essence of being middle aged can bring about an existential crisis. You may question what you've done with your life up to this mid-way point and reconsider what you want to do with your future.
6. During a "quarter-life crisis."
Similar to a mid-life crisis, a "quarter-life crisis" may spur an existential crisis as you come into adulthood and reconsider your purpose in life. A "quarter-life" crisis might bring on questions about what you'd like to do with your life after graduating college or completing your first job, and you may be intimidated by the sheer time you have in life to define yourself.
What to do if you're experiencing an existential crisis.
There are several ways to tackle an existential crisis. Here are a few ways to dig deep and find the peace you're seeking.
1. Confide in someone you trust.
Tell a trusted loved one that you're experiencing a period of doubt and share your questions about life with them. Ask them to support you as you seek the answers to your questions, or ask for their insight into what "purpose" your personality and talents lend themselves to.
2. Focus on what you're grateful for.
If you are questioning the point of life, make a list of specific aspects of your existence that you're grateful for. List the people, activities, places and other parts of life that bring your life genuine joy and purpose. Soon, you'll realize the value of existence.
3. Manifest meaning.
One of the best ways to resolve an existential crisis — and the questioning of one's meaning that comes with it — is manifesting meaning in every day life. Spend time exploring the world and find activities and practices that make your life feel purposeful. Then, focus on those. Try a new hobby, find a new spirituality, pour yourself into your relationships, plan a trip. Everyday, write down how these things make you feel.
4. Understand you might not find the answers.
Existential crises can result in some big questions: what is the meaning of life? Why are we all here? What is my purpose? Realize that the answers may not come easy, and they may not come at all. Seeking the answers to these questions may result in frantic feelings and self-doubt, while coming to peace with the world's lack of answers can bring peace and the calmness required to mindfully engage in other things in life.
5. Seek help.
If your existential crisis results in feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide, please seek professional medical help. The National Suicide Prevention Helpline is available 24/7 in the United States at 1-800-273-8255. Talking to a licensed mental health professional, such as a licensed counselor or therapist, can help you clarify your feelings towards the life you're living now and help you define the life you'd like to manifest in the future.
Resources for when you're experiencing an existential crisis.
Need help managing your existential crisis? Here are resources to pursue when the questions are too hard to tackle yourself.
1. A close friend or loved one.
If you're questioning your life's purpose — of life's purpose in general — pondering it with a friend or loved one will help you feel less alone, and may bring you some answers.
2. A licensed mental health professional.
A licensed mental health professional can help you clarify how you feel about life and help you manage the thoughts and feelings you have in a healthy, productive way. They can also help you explore what your life's meaning.
3. An online therapy service.
If you don't feel comfortable confiding in a loved one and don't have access to a licensed mental health professional, there are online therapy services available to everyone. Smartphone apps and websites like talkspace and betterhelp are accessible at the click of a button.
Again, if you're thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Helpline is available 24/7 in the United States at 1-800-273-8255.