Every now and then, we’re going about our lives until suddenly, an intrusive thought hits us like a truck: “What is the meaning of my life?” “Do I have a purpose?” “What’s the point of all this?” When everything seems absurd, pointless, and you don’t feel like it’ll ever change? That’s certainly fuel for an existential crisis.
It’s natural for thoughts like this to wander in and out, but often, these thoughts seep deeper into our minds and overwhelm us with despair and other negative feelings.
We are all becoming more aware of the coldness, cruelty and dysfunction in this world, leading us to question our habits and values, whether we have any power to change things (we do), and whether it’s possible to create good inside such a broken social system.
You’re not alone in feeling this way, but the goal is for you to feel better.
For immediate relief, you can talk to an understanding peer about your struggle (24/7, anonymous and judgement-free).
And for the longer-term, we’ll show you steps to overcome an existential crisis, below.
What is an existential crisis?
An existential crisis is when life’s uncertainty or absurdity become too much to bear. The weight of it all sends you into an abyss formed and perpetuated by feelings like helplessness, apathy for the world around you, a loss of enjoyment in things you used to like, sleep problems, and more.
An existential crisis can show itself as any of the following:
- existential dread: the dread of trudging through a meaningless existence
- existential anxiety: the panic or anxiety of needing to find meaning in a meaningless-seeming world
- existential depression: the depression that comes with the belief that nothing you do matters
Or, it can look like your own brand of crippling despair.
“Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.” – Viktor Frankl
Why does it happen?
An existential crisis seldom appears on its own. It can usually be traced back to something, such as an unhelpful thinking style, a life-changing event, or trauma.
These crises occur, in theory, when we face vague aspects of existence like finality, infinity, or mortality.
It can come in the form of questions like:
- “What is my purpose?”
- “Where is my place in this vast world?”
- “If I’m just going to die, why does anything I do matter?”
- Or, like this redditor put it: “Why do we live?”
Especially in today’s social and political climate, existential anxiety can arise from outside the self, too, spurred by senseless or confusing trends and events.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles
Existential crises can accompany mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder, among others. However, the question of what causes what is still up for debate.
“Talking about our feelings gives them validity and helps prevent them from consuming us.”
If someone is overwhelmed by an existential crisis, it makes sense to assume that those very thoughts cause depressive symptoms like apathy, loss of pleasure, prolonged periods of sadness, and more.
But on the other hand, if someone already has major depression or something similar, that can lead to feelings of disconnect with the world. And that disconnect can trigger questions like “What is the meaning of my existence?” and “Do I matter?”
All we know for sure is that existential crises have links to mental health, but whether they are a symptom or a cause is still being researched.
Traumatic life events like living through a natural disaster, a medical emergency, or the death of a loved one are potential causes for existential crises. This also applies to other life-changing events like losing a job or a disastrous break up.
When we’re faced with such events, it’s natural to take a step back and ponder things such as our life’s purpose or our own mortality. It becomes easy to fall into an existential crisis
How can I deal with an existential crisis?
Existential crises are not something wrong with you.
In modern life, it’s easy to feel a lack of drive. Many of us feel like our efforts are pointless, like there’s no motivating factor worthy of our energy.
In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl suggests that existential frustration can often be solved by making some change in life that provides a person a fuller sense of meaning and purpose.
Luckily, we all have inner tools to help us overcome existential crises in this way.
Zapfee’s inner tools in an existential crisis
Around 1933, philosopher Philip Zapfee proposed that existential dread is something we’re all bound to experience at some point. He suggested that while existential crises are pretty much inevitable, but he also gave us hope.
He theorized that each of us has specific, internal tools that can help combat these overwhelming feelings.
This is our ability to fixate on specific concepts to help stave off feelings of dread and unease. We can anchor ourselves to things like specific goals, values, or relationships. This allows us to find meaning in the governing principles of our lives.
Anchoring, as the term suggests, keeps us grounded and driven in the face of an existential crisis.
It sounds bad just to write it like that! But this is our ability to separate ourselves from our dreadful thoughts. We have the ability to take a step back from disheartening situations and reflect on what we’re going through.
Distractions can help by diverting our time and attention to other things instead of remaining focused on negative existential thoughts.
Similar to distraction, sublimation is another way to refocus our energy. Instead of focusing on our thoughts, we can turn our attention to things that bring us joy or give us meaning.
Sublimation can be as simple as devoting your energy to the positive things in life, or creating a positive outlet for your emotions like arts and literature.
Those tools were proposed a long time ago, so let’s also look at the issue from a more modern perspective. Below are some more tools you may find within yourself, to help in an existential crisis.
Spend some time thinking about why you feel this way. Reflection is a powerful tool that lets us assess a situation and assess what our options are to handle it.
Reflection can help evaluate and understand your feelings, and from there you may find ways to manage your emotions and find meaning in life.
Setting goals is one of the best ways to give us a sense of purpose and autonomy. Try to think about something you’ve always wanted to do.
Have you ever wanted to try your hand at making a difficult but delicious dish? Or how about talking to a stranger?
Map out a game plan for reaching your goals. This can directly help combat that feeling of having no purpose – no matter how small, you’re creating one for yourself!
As Zapfee alluded to, distractions are a great way to take our mind off of negative thoughts.
Pour your time and energy into something you’re passionate about. If you don’t have a prominent hobby, reflect and think about anything you’ve ever wanted to try but never had the chance.
There are lots of YouTube videos on random hobbies you might never have thought of. Take some time to explore and land on something that feels right for you.
Talking to someone:
Dealing with these thoughts on your own is hard, so take some time and voice your concerns to a trusted friend or family member.
Talking about our feelings gives them validity and helps prevent them from consuming us. And others can even lend a helping hand to help you through an existential crisis!
Dealing with an existential crisis isn’t easy, but hopefully you’re now equipped to handle it better than before.
If you ever feel like your thoughts are weighing too heavily on you, don’t be afraid to start a chat at Supportiv! Hit the coral Chat Now button, type a thought, and you’ll get to talk in less than a minute.
We’re always here to talk 24/7 and can provide a listening ear – whatever is on your mind.