Sooner or later, most people go through an existential crisis, especially when occur unexpected situations that cause a 180 degree turn and generate deep vital anguish.
These events usually come loaded with a large dose of confusion and uncertainty, sweeping away suddenly our emotional stability, but it can also become a turning point to radically change our lives, set new goals, reinvent ourselves or take that step we had always wanted to but we did not dare.
What is an existential crisis?
Crises occur when we do not have the necessary psychological resources to face a certain situation. The existential crisis, in particular, occurs when we question the meaning of our life and do not find satisfactory answers.
It can be described as persistent negative feelings and emotions linked to doubts about the inherent meaning of life and existence. In fact, this concept comes from existentialism, a philosophical current that focuses on exploring the meaning of human existence and its purpose in a world that seems chaotic and meaningless.
In many cases, the existential crisis is a psychological reaction to a life event, whether real or imagined, that has had a profound impact and has made us feel alone or helpless. At that point we can begin to ask ourselves what is the meaning of our life, what is truly important, where we are going or what we will do with our existence.
Although these are questions that we have all asked ourselves at some point, when an existential crisis occurs, these questions take on a urgent nature. They torment and obsess us, generating an intense state of anguish and unease.
When we don’t find answers that satisfy us, we can feel angry, helpless, anxious, or even depressed. For some people it can be a terrifying experience, feeling completely alone and lost in a universe that they perceive as random and meaningless. In fact, the existential crisis can lead to an existential depression.
However, it can also be an opportunity for self-discovery and growth. Many times existential crises have a positive effect, as they allow us to discover what is really important in our life, or find a new purpose that fills us completely and motivates us to move forward with renewed strength.
How do you know if you are going through an existential crisis? Most common symptoms
The existential crisis acquires a unique dimension for each person, although some common symptoms can also be detected:
• Nothing seems interesting enough to you, activities you once enjoyed have lost their appeal and no longer make sense to you
• You have a feeling of permanent and general dissatisfaction, even though things are going well for you
• You feel emotionally drained or experience a constant feeling of emptiness and lack of energy
• You think you need to turn your life around, but you have no idea where to start or how to do it
• You feel alone in a universe that seems too big, alien, confusing and meaningless
• You experience a feeling of alienation from yourself, you do not recognize yourself in the person you are and you question your values and beliefs
• You begin to wonder if you have skipped some stages of your life or suspect that you still have many experiences to live, which causes you anguish
• You question the most important decisions you have made, from choosing your profession to your relationship, and you have the feeling that you have chosen the wrong path
• You feel fear and anxiety about the future because when you look ahead you can’t see the path clearly
• You have a greater awareness of your mortality, you assume that death could come at any moment, which makes you very uneasy
• You have the feeling that everything you have done has been in vain or made no sense, in fact, sometimes you can feel as if you have not lived
In a certain way, we can refer to two types of existential crises, depending on the focus of attention on which the concerns revolve:
1. Existential crisis of BEING. It is an identity crisis; that is, it affects the image we have of ourselves. In these cases, most of the questions that grip us are about who we are, what we have been and who we want to become. They are existential crises tied to our deepest values and beliefs.
2. Existential crisis of DOING. This crisis has a more pragmatic character since it leads us to ask ourselves questions such as: What am I doing with my life? Am I satisfied with this life? Am I happy with what I do? It is generally accompanied by an existential boredom and the feeling of living in a loop, from which we do not know how to get out because we feel that social pressures decide for us, regardless of our will.
Why do existential crises occur and what consequences do they have?
Existential crises are related to the growth and maturation process, so they can occur at any time in life, with the exception of childhood. In fact, they are common in youth, a stage in which we must find our place in the world, but they can also occur in adulthood or old age, especially as we approach our death.
In some cases it is possible to find a triggering event, a situation that shocks and makes us rethink the path we had followed up to that moment, such as an accident, the death of a close person, the choice of a profession, the transfer to another country or a serious illness.
However, it is not always possible to identify a specific event. In these cases, the existential crisis is simmering, often fueled by the feeling of loneliness, emptiness and/or dissatisfaction with what we have done so far, or the person we have become.
Obviously, we don’t all experience the existential crisis in the same way. There are those who come out of it quickly and there are those who plunge into a long destabilizing period. Some develop a negative perspective of themselves, the world and the future that can trigger psychological problems, such as depression or even suicidal thoughts.
The extreme emotional vulnerability we experience during an existential crisis, coupled with feelings of disconnection and sense of meaninglessness, makes it difficult to find meaning in things, which is why some people fall into the black hole of apathy and anhedonia.
However, in most cases existential crises end up being positive experiences that change our worldview. In a certain sense, the existential crisis is a call from our deepest “self”, a propitious moment to better understand what is going on beneath our conscience. They are a call to pause and get out of autopilot.
During an existential crisis we can rediscover truths that we had buried for years while we were too busy fulfilling the social expectations placed on us. In fact, Carl Jung believed that the first half of our life is spent developing our ego, while we spend the second half integrating the unconscious and becoming who we really are. For this reason, this transition period often acts as a trigger for an existential crisis.
Normally, to overcome an existential crisis, it is important not to get discouraged and focus on freedom of choice. We may not be satisfied with what we have done or may not like the person we have become, but we have the power to change it here and now, one step at a time. Seeing the existential crisis as a turning point to start leading a fuller and more meaningful life, will help us overcome that stage of doubts and questions and even come out stronger, with a new vision and mission for ourselves and the world.
Butėnaitė, J. et. Al. (2016) Components of existential crisis: a theoretical analysis. International Journal of Psychology: Biopsychosocial Approach; 18: 9-27.
Yang, W. et. Al. (2010) Existential crisis and the awareness of dying: the role of meaning and spirituality. Omega (Westport); 61(1):53-69.