The Existential Crisis and How to Overcome it
- 06 Sep 2022
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“My life is collapsing”, “I don’t know who I am anymore”, “It is all too overwhelming”, “I feel alone”.
These are statements often shared by clients and patients during therapy sessions. Those who have a little more insight into these recurrent feelings or thoughts, may realize that these frequent anxious spirals arise from existential concerns. Existentialism is a philosophical concept explored since the 19th century by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, and others.
Existentialism developed as a means of understanding issues concerning human existence particularly highlighting the purpose of one’s life or rather the lack of it. Ideas of life’s meaning, purpose and values have been approached differently by philosophers, some with absurdism and others with predetermined dread. These approaches were believed to be the most rational ways of living an otherwise meaningless life. This sense of meaninglessness or lack of purpose in life is what is presumed to cause a person existential anxiety and subsequently, an existential crisis. Due to the spreading of this philosophical theme, psychotherapists such as Rollo May, began exploring the involvement of existential conflicts and ideas in relation to psychological distress thereby founding existential psychotherapy as a therapeutic approach.
Let us deconstruct these existential concerns in a more comprehensible way. Dr. Irvin D. Yalom, another existentialist psychotherapist and an American psychiatrist, wrote in his book ‘Existential psychotherapy’ that existential concerns rise due to four primary inner inescapable conflicts:
- Death: in which one struggles between the awareness of their mortality and finding a will to continue existing.
- Freedom: the realization that one does not live in a predetermined structured world, and they are rather entirely responsible for the course of their life’s outcome. This therefore, creates conflict between one’s desire for certainty and structure in the world and the fact that there is not.
- Isolation: one’s feelings of isolation from other beings and from the world and the resulting conflict of our desire for connectedness but our awareness that one remains alone in existence no matter how close they become to others.
- Meaninglessness: this addresses the previous points and provokes the question that if one’s death is inevitable, and the time they have on earth will certainly be chaotic and isolated, then what meaning does our existence hold?
Existential psychotherapists believe that by confronting these conflicts, accepting them, as well as finding subjective meaning or purpose in suffering and in life, one’s anxieties should subside. Thus, preventing or recovering from one’s existential crisis.
Existential psychotherapy may be a long journey to recovery from severe recurrent anxiety, however, if you are having one too many existential crises then perhaps it is the right therapeutic route for you.
For further reading on existential psychotherapy, here are some recommendations:
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).
Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May (1953).
Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom (1980).