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How To Overcome an Existential Crisis

Connecting with loved ones, keeping a gratitude journal and reframing the situation may help the dread dissipate

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Your “baby sister” has a baby on the way. You found your first gray hair. A friend died unexpectedly. Certain life changes rock you to your core. Others leave you wondering what’s the point of it all. When these feelings overtake you, you may be experiencing an existential crisis. And if thinking about your future fills you with anxiety or depression, there’s a name for that too: existential dread.

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There’s nothing easy or fun about these sorts of inner conflicts. But they’re an important part of being human. If you’re lucky, navigating through these uncertain moments will make you stronger and more secure in who you are.

Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, gives us a primer on existential crises —and offers tips to help put feelings of dread in the rearview mirror.

What is an existential crisis?

An existential crisis is a normal transitional phase that most of us experience repeatedly throughout our lives — usually when we’re confronted by the fact that we’ll eventually die.

“When we’re navigating big changes or profound losses, it’s common to start asking questions about where you are in life,” Dr. Albers explains. “You look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And you may have profound feelings of dissatisfaction about where you are in life.”

Existential crises are an emotional response to change. Existential dread, on the other hand, describes the anxious feelings about the future you experience during an existential crisis.

Let’s say your job pays the bills but it isn’t what you want to do with your life. And suddenly, a coworker is diagnosed with a terminal illness. That kind of news could provoke an existential crisis over your career.

What if I never leave this job and pursue my calling? What if I’m not meant to accomplish big things? What if I die in my cubicle!? Will anybody even notice?!?

As the questions pile up, so do the anxiety and despair. A couple days ago, work was work. Now, clocking in fills you with existential dread. All because someone else is sick!

Sometimes, an existential crisis becomes a turning point. Maybe it provides the push you need to quit that job and start your small business. But it might also resolve itself with time and perspective. Maybe you realize that you’re right where you need to be right now — or resolve to move forward once you’ve got a couple more years of experience under your belt. Or maybe you just gradually settle back into life as usual and feel content again. There’s no one right way to respond to existential angst.

Causes

An existential crisis isn’t the same as anxiety and depression. They’re comparable because people often experience similar feelings, but an existential crisis usually has a trigger.

“There’s usually a turning point or moment of awareness that — in one way or another — is linked to worrying about death,” Dr. Albers explains. “That turning point causes people to think about and question the meaning in their lives.”

We can keep the idea of death at bay for a long time but, every once in a while, life intrudes.

“It’s like we’re running on a hamster wheel every day, just trying to catch up,” Dr. Albers illustrates. “But then, suddenly, something stops that wheel. And we slow down enough to start to wonder, Why am I on this particular wheel? Do I even want to be on it? Why do I keep going?

The experiences or events that trigger existential crises are frequently negative, but they can also be positive or bittersweet. Here are a few examples of triggers:

How to deal with an existential crisis

They can throw us for a loop, but existential crises can still be hard to spot at times.

“You may have depression, anxiety or feel unmotivated,” Dr. Albers says. “You may start asking a lot of questions, such as why you’re in the relationship you’re in or why you haven’t accomplished a particular goal. You may feel regret over past choices. And you may even have some suicidal thoughts.”

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Other signs you’re in an existential crisis include:

  • Thinking about death, life, meaning or purpose more than usual.
  • A dip in self-esteem or an increase in self-doubt.
  • Difficulty focusing on what’s happening in the present.
  • Anxious or despondent feelings about the future.
  • A feeling of disconnection (and sometimes, actual isolation) from the people around you.
  • A sudden change in your daily routine or a lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy.
  • A sense of emptiness, hopelessness or regret.
  • Unusual interest in philosophy, spirituality or self-improvement.

Living with existential dread is hard, no question about it. But there are several things you can do — and people you can reach out to — in order to work through and overcome an existential crisis.

Adjust your viewpoint

“What’s most important is your mindset and the lens through which you look at this experience,” Dr. Albers attests. “Instead of thinking of the situation as a crisis or something bad, see it as an opportunity to make changes that will add to your happiness.”

Of course, not all trigger events come with a bright side. Some of the things that happen to us are objectively terrible. If there’s no silver lining to be seen or a lesson to be learned, ask yourself what it would take to create one and shift your focus in that direction.

Keep a gratitude journal

Keep a gratitude journal about the things you’re thankful for that add meaning to your life. According to Dr. Albers, your list may surprise you.

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“Finding out where you really want to spend your energy, time and effort may take some soul-searching,” she notes. “By writing down the things you enjoy and find meaningful, you can figure out what you want to change and what’s fine as it is.”

Connect with people

An existential crisis can happen when you feel disconnected from the people in your life. Reestablishing connections can help you feel more grounded. Dr. Albers recommends reaching out to friends and family and talking to others who have had similar experiences.

“If these feelings last more than a couple of months, lead to depression that doesn’t pass or provoke suicidal feelings, connect with a therapist,” she urges. “Having someone to help you navigate these emotions is important.”

If you need immediate help, the 24/7 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a free resource that connects people in crisis to a local counselor through chat, text or phone call.

Practice mindfulness

Existential crises can take our minds in all sorts of different directions. But centering yourself in the present moment can calm racing thoughts.

Meditation not really your thing? That’s OK! Mindfulness comes in many forms.

“Spend more time on things that make you feel good,” Dr. Albers encourages. “Bring mindfulness to these experiences by savoring them with all your senses.”

Redirect your energy

Existential crises tend to crop up when we’re at loose ends. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many people’s careers were suddenly ripped away or changed.

“That dramatic change in daily schedule helped lots of people realize they were channeling most of their time, energy and meaning into their careers,” Dr. Albers reflects. “So, when it was gone, it became a crisis. It’s similar to what happens when a person puts all their energy into maintaining a relationship and then gets divorced.”

That’s why redirecting your energy helps. “Maintaining a balance among all the aspects of our lives can keep us going when one part falters,” she adds.

Don’t dwell on the past

It’s easy to get depressed when you ruminate over things that happened in the past. But we can’t change them.

“My motto is always, ‘Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.’” Dr. Albers says. “Instead of looking backward and regretting what’s happened, look ahead to the direction you want your life to take.”

Keep in mind: There’s a difference between dwelling on the past and honoring it. If you’re struggling with grief over the loss of a loved one, for example, it’s OK to talk about them with other people and remember them as you move through your day. But if you notice that your memories are making it harder to function in the present, reach out for support.

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When to seek help

Existential crises — and the existential dread that comes with them — often dissipate on their own within a few days or weeks. But there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to feelings. Sometimes, they take longer or require professional help to move past.

Speak to your primary care or mental health provider if:

  • Your symptoms aren’t getting any better — or they’re getting worse.
  • You’re having difficulty with activities of daily living like bathing, grooming and food shopping.
  • Your health’s been impacted (think significant changes in appetite or sleep habits).
  • You’re engaging in risky behavior or contemplating drastic changes to your life.
  • You’re thinking about hurting yourself or somebody else.

Existential crises can make you question everything. But remember: You know yourself. If you think you may need mental health support, trust yourself.

How to help somebody in an existential crisis

If you know somebody who’s struggling with existential dread, offering support is a great way to help.

“Acknowledge what the person is going through, point out what you’re observing and don’t be critical,” Dr. Albers advises. “You can also offer to help them find a therapist.” It might seem like a small gesture, but it can make a big difference.

“There’s a stigma associated with existential crises. But this period of dread can also mean opportunity, growth and redirection toward the things you feel good about in life,” she adds.

Standing at a crossroads can be lonely. So, remind your loved one that — whatever path they choose to take moving forward — they won’t be traveling alone.

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