Certain life changes can 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.
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“An existential crisis is a normal transitional phase that many people experience,” says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. “When something in your life makes you confront that you will die at some point — whether someone in your life dies, there’s an illness or something similar — you might start to ask questions about where you are in life.”
But don’t despair. In this Q&A, Albers shares six ways to overcome these feelings and restore the balance in your life.
Q. What does it mean to have an existential crisis?
A. With existential crises, there’s usually a turning point and moment of awareness that’s often linked with worrying about death. This turning point causes people to think about and question the meaning in their lives.
They look at what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They may have profound feelings of dissatisfaction about where they are in life.
We can keep the idea of death at bay for a long time, but particularly with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s become front and center for many people. It’s like they were running on a hamster wheel every day, just trying to catch up. But then suddenly, the pandemic stopped that wheel. People slowed 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?” People started to question the things that they had been doing in a rote way. It’s really about the meaning of it all.
An existential crisis is not the same as anxiety and depression. They are comparable because people often experience similar feelings, but an existential crisis usually has some trigger.
Q. What can cause an existential crisis?
A. It’s usually some sort of crisis, including:
- Death of a parent or other loved one.
- Sudden change in circumstances, such as a job loss.
- Age-related health or life change, such as the kids leaving home.
Q. What are signs that you’re experiencing an existential crisis?
A. You may have depression, anxiety or feel unmotivated. You may start asking a lot of questions, such as why you’re doing the job that you’re doing. You may feel regret over past choices and you may even have some suicidal thoughts.
Q. How can you deal with an existential crisis?
A. There are several things you can do to work through and overcome an existential crisis.
1. Adjust your viewpoint
What’s most important is your mindset and the lens through which you look at this experience. 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.
2. Keep a gratitude journal
Keep a gratitude journal about the things you are thankful for that add meaning to your life. Finding out where you really want to spend your energy, time and effort may take some soul-searching. By writing down the things you enjoy and find meaningful, you can figure out what you want to change.
3. 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. So reach out to friends and family and talk to others who have had similar experiences.
If these feelings last more than a couple of months or lead to depression that doesn’t pass or suicidal feelings, then connect with a therapist. Having someone to help you navigate these emotions is important.
If you need immediate help, the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800.273.8255 (or via chat) is a free resource that connects people in crisis to a local counselor.
4. Practice mindfulness
Spend more time on things that make you feel good. Bring mindfulness to these experiences by savoring them with all your senses.
5. Redirect your energy
With the pandemic, many people’s careers were taken away. This change helped them realize they were channeling most of their time, energy and meaning into their careers. So when it was gone, it became a crisis.
That’s why redirecting your energy helps. Your career is a big part of your life — but it’s only one part. Focus energy on your relationships and hobbies as well to achieve a better balance.
It’s similar to what happens when a person puts all their energy into a relationship and then gets divorced. They need to restore the balance by focusing more on their friends and career. A balance among all the aspects of our lives can keep us going when one part falters.
6. Don’t dwell on the past
People can get very depressed when they start looking to the past. But we can’t change it. My motto is always, “Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.” Instead of looking backward and regretting what’s happened, look ahead to the direction you want your life to take.
Q. How can you help someone experiencing an existential crisis?
A. 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. You can also offer to help them get therapy.
Sometimes, there’s a stigma associated with an existential crisis — that it’s a bad thing. But this period can also mean opportunity, growth and redirection toward the things you feel good about in life.