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Understanding Existential Crisis & Mental Health

By Julian Lewis November 6, 2023

Understanding Existential Crisis & Mental Health

In the vast tapestry of human emotions and experiences, the term "existential crisis" stands out as one of the most profound and, at times, perplexing. But, what is an existential crisis? At its core, an existential crisis involves a deep questioning of life's purpose and meaning, often arising from experiences that shake one's beliefs or worldview. Whether it's a sudden tragedy, the persistent weight of daily monotony, or an inexplicable feeling of emptiness, these moments can plunge individuals into an abyss of existential anxiety.

Historically, philosophers and thinkers have grappled with these gnawing questions about the meaning of life. Yet, in today's modern society, these reflections have grown increasingly prevalent. There's an intertwined relationship between existential crises and mental health issues. The rapid pace of change, the bombardment of information, and the evolving norms of modern society have amplified these concerns, making them a prominent feature of today's discourse.

But it's not just the philosophical musings of scholars or the daydreams of the common man. The existential dread that many feel has tangible effects on mental health. It can lead to feelings of a meaningless life or, conversely, the frantic search for a meaningful one. Negative emotions, feelings of despair, and even suicidal thoughts can arise from these deep-seated questions. The lines between existential crises and other mental health conditions, such as existential depression or generalized anxiety disorder, have begun to blur.

There's a silver lining, though. By acknowledging these concerns, society can pave the way for more effective mental health interventions, destigmatize these experiences, and offer support. From seeking a mental health professional to joining support groups, individuals are not alone in their quest for answers.

In the sections that follow, we'll delve deeper into understanding existential crises, exploring their causes, symptoms, and the coping mechanisms that individuals have found effective. While the journey may be fraught with challenges, it's also an essential part of the human experience – pushing us to seek clarity, find purpose, and ultimately, enrich our lives.

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Understanding Existential Crisis: A Fundamental Exploration

An existential crisis is one of those terms that seems to be on everyone's lips nowadays. But what does it genuinely entail? Let's demystify this deep-seated emotional experience by diving into its intricate components.

The Detailed Existential Crisis Definition

An existential crisis, at its essence, refers to:

  • Questioning Life's Meaning: This often involves introspective thoughts about the inherent meaning (or perceived lack thereof) in life. Questions such as, "Why am I here?" or "What's the purpose of my existence?" dominate the mind.
  • Overwhelming Uncertainty: A feeling of disorientation and confusion concerning life choices and paths, making it difficult to make decisions or find direction.
  • Existential Dread: A profound sense of foreboding or unease about life's inherent uncertainties and the eventual reality of death.
  • Feelings of Isolation: A pervasive sensation that one is alone in their feelings or that others cannot possibly understand the depth of their existential concerns.
  • Search for Authenticity: An intense desire to live a life that feels genuine and not dictated by societal norms or expectations.

By breaking down the existential crisis definition, we can better understand the emotional and psychological layers that underpin this experience. It's a multifaceted state, rooted in profound philosophical questions but also deeply tied to our emotional well-being.

Exploring Existential Dread and its Place within Existential Anxiety

Existential dread is often used interchangeably with existential anxiety, but they are distinct, though related, phenomena.

Existential Dread: This refers to the intense fear or anxiety related to life's inherent meaninglessness. It's the unsettling feeling that accompanies thoughts of our mortality, the vastness of the universe, or the fleeting nature of time. It's that nagging sensation that our efforts, desires, and struggles might ultimately be in vain.

Existential Anxiety: On the other hand, existential anxiety can be seen as the broader framework that houses existential dread. It encompasses the entire range of emotions and concerns tied to our existence. This includes worries about:

  • Achieving a meaningful life amidst the noise of modern society.
  • Coping with the inevitability of death and the fear of the unknown.
  • The challenge of establishing healthy relationships and connections in a disconnected world.
  • Navigating the paradox of choice in a world filled with endless possibilities.

In many ways, existential dread can be considered a subset or specific manifestation of existential anxiety. While dread zeroes in on the inherent meaninglessness and finality of life, existential anxiety paints with a broader brush, capturing the myriad of concerns and questions we grapple with as sentient beings aware of our mortality.

In the grand tapestry of our lives, these feelings of dread and anxiety are not just idle musings. They play a pivotal role in shaping our decisions, behaviors, and overall worldview. Understanding them, therefore, becomes crucial not just for individual peace of mind but for societal cohesion and progress.


Symptoms and Signs: Identifying Existential Crises

While existential crises may seem ethereal and philosophical, they manifest in very real, tangible ways. It's crucial to recognize these signs not just in ourselves but in our loved ones, as early intervention can be beneficial. Understanding the symptoms and signs can help one navigate these rocky terrains with a bit more clarity.

Pinpointing the Tangible and Intangible Existential Crisis Symptoms

Tangible Symptoms:

  • Disturbed Sleep Patterns: A person might experience insomnia, frequent nightmares, or even oversleeping. This can be due to racing existential thoughts or the weight of existential dread that disrupts regular sleep.
  • Physical Discomfort: This includes headaches, stomach problems, or other stress-induced ailments. The mind-body connection is powerful, and existential anxiety can translate to physical discomfort.
  • Changes in Appetite: Either overeating as a coping mechanism or losing appetite entirely can be a clear symptom.
  • Avoidance Behavior: A person might avoid social interactions or any activities that might trigger existential thoughts or discussions.

Intangible Symptoms:

  • Constant Rumination: Continuously pondering life's meaning, one's mortality, or the nature of existence without resolution or clarity.
  • Feelings of Isolation: The sensation that no one else understands or shares their concerns, leading to a sense of being alone in their struggles.
  • Intense Feelings of Emptiness: A pervasive feeling that nothing matters, often accompanied by a sense of hopelessness.
  • Loss of Interest: In activities or hobbies that once brought joy, indicating a larger loss of purpose in life.

Recognizing the Negative Emotions and Signs Indicating an Impending or Ongoing Crisis

It's not just the overt symptoms, but also the undercurrent of negative emotions that signals an existential crisis:

  • Pervasive Sadness: Not tied to a specific event but rather a deeper, unshakeable feeling of despair related to existential concerns.
  • Overwhelming Anxiety: Not just the regular day-to-day anxiety, but an overpowering existential anxiety that can be paralyzing at times.
  • Negative Thought Patterns: These include thoughts like "What's the point?" or "Why bother?", signaling a sense of defeat or hopelessness.
  • Suicidal Thoughts: In more extreme cases, grappling with the nature of existence and one's life can lead to thoughts of ending it.
  • Substance Abuse: Using drugs or alcohol as a way to numb or escape the intense feelings associated with an existential crisis.

Identifying an existential crisis involves recognizing both the tangible symptoms and the more subtle, emotional cues. By understanding these signs, we can not only support ourselves but also provide help to those around us, potentially guiding them to seek professional intervention when necessary.

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Causes and Triggers: What Sparks an Existential Crisis?

While everyone's life is unique, the causes and triggers of existential crises often stem from universal human experiences. Understanding these triggers can offer clarity during times of existential questioning and help one navigate the rocky terrains of life's meaning.

Factors in Our Day-to-Day Life

Existential crises can sneak up in the midst of our daily routines, often stemming from:

  • Reflective Moments: Times when we pause and ponder, asking deep existential questions about our purpose and the meaning in life.
  • Unsettled Routine: Changes in our day-to-day life can unseat feelings of security, leading us to seek a deeper understanding or purpose.
  • Negative Thought Patterns: These can lead to an existential depression, especially when repetitive and unchallenged.
  • Modern Society's Expectations: The pressures and rapid changes in modern society can sometimes overshadow our own desires, leading to feelings of a meaningless life.

Life Events as Turning Points

Various life events can act as catalysts, causing one to dig deeper into the recesses of existential thoughts:

  • Early Teenage Crisis: This is a time of personal growth, where young minds grapple with their emerging identities against societal norms.
  • Sophomore Crisis: College years, marked by newfound independence, can lead to an existential questioning of one's life choices and the future.
  • Midlife Crisis: Often a reflection on one's accomplishments and regrets, this can be a turning point in a person's life, where they reconsider life choices, purpose, and direction.
  • Later Life Crisis: Facing own mortality and reflecting on the meaning of life, especially post-retirement, can be a time of existential despair for some.
  • Experiencing Trauma: Serious illness, loss of a family member, or any life event that causes significant distress can lead to existential questioning.
  • Religious Shifts: Changes in religious beliefs or the exploration of spirituality can spark an existential crisis, especially if one feels unmoored from previously held convictions.

Recognizing these triggers can be beneficial. By understanding the root causes, one can seek professional guidance, perhaps through an online therapy platform or a licensed therapist specializing in existential therapy. Engaging in healthy relationships, joining support groups, or practicing mindfulness can act as buffers, offering solace during these turbulent times. No matter the cause, it's crucial to remember that existential crises, while challenging, are also opportunities for profound personal growth.

Types of Existential Crisis: The Many Faces of Existential Anxiety

Existential crises, much like the facets of human life, come in various forms. Whether you're grappling with the challenges of early adulthood or reflecting upon the deeper questions in later years, these dilemmas are universally complex, deeply personal, and intensely challenging.

Different Existential Dilemmas

Individuals across the lifespan can experience distinct existential dilemmas:

  • Sophomore Crisis: College years can be overwhelming, filled with newfound freedoms and responsibilities. Many students often face a sophomore crisis during which they question their life choices, major, and future career paths.
  • Early Adulthood Challenges: As young adults venture into the world, they may confront existential questions related to career choices, relationships, and their life purpose. This period can be marked by both exploration and existential anxiety.
  • Midlife Reflections: Typically occurring between ages 40 to 60, the midlife crisis forces individuals to assess accomplishments, regrets, and the future trajectory of their lives.
  • Later Life Contemplations: Often post-retirement, individuals might grapple with questions about legacy, life's meaning, and facing their own mortality.
  • Existential OCD: This is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder where individuals incessantly ruminate over existential questions. Concerns such as the meaning of life, fear of death, and the nature of reality can dominate one's thoughts, leading to increased existential anxiety.

The Rising Prevalence of Existential OCD and Early Adulthood Challenges

Modern society, with its rapid technological advancements and shifting societal norms, presents unique challenges. Existential OCD, for instance, has garnered attention as a prominent mental health issue. The constant bombardment of information and the ability to endlessly research existential questions online can fuel the obsessive tendencies in susceptible individuals.

Similarly, early adulthood, once considered a time of exploration and finding one's footing, is now riddled with pressures from social media comparisons, economic challenges, and societal expectations. The quest for a meaningful life in this digital age, combined with other mental health issues, can make this phase daunting.

However, as with any existential crisis, recognizing the type and seeking guidance—whether from mental health professionals, support groups, or online therapy platforms—can be immensely beneficial. Knowledge is power, and understanding the nature of one's existential concerns can be the first step toward a more meaningful and fulfilled life.

Coping and Solutions: Navigating the Maelstrom of Existential Concerns

Navigating the stormy waters of existential concerns can be daunting. These deep-seated questions about life's meaning and purpose, if left unchecked, can lead to feelings of despair, anxiety, and even depression. However, with the right strategies, tools, and support, one can find solace, understanding, and direction in the face of these challenges.

Actionable Strategies for Dealing with Existential Crises

When trapped in the whirlwind of existential thoughts, certain tangible strategies can be incredibly grounding:

  1. Practice Mindfulness: Anchoring oneself in the present moment can alleviate the overwhelming nature of existential questions. Tools like gratitude journals or meditation apps can help foster this practice.
  2. Seek Social Relationships: Connecting with others, sharing your concerns, and listening to their experiences can provide fresh perspectives on life. Joining support groups or engaging in deep conversations with family members can be invaluable.
  3. Engage in Personal Growth Activities: Dive into new experiences, hobbies, or skills. This promotes self-awareness and can be a distraction from negative thought patterns.
  4. Refocus on Life Purpose: Reassess your goals and aspirations. Clarify what gives your life meaning and strive towards it.
  5. Limit Overconsumption of Information: In our digital age, constantly seeking answers online can exacerbate existential anxiety. Establish boundaries and take digital detoxes when necessary.

The Power of Professional Interventions

An existential crisis can sometimes be too overwhelming to handle alone. Seeking professional guidance can be transformative:

  • Existential Therapy: This form of therapy focuses directly on existential concerns. A licensed therapist can guide individuals through their existential questions, helping them find meaning in life.
  • Online Therapy Platforms: For those who prefer digital platforms or need flexible scheduling, online therapy platforms can be an excellent resource. They offer a range of mental health services tailored to individual needs.
  • Support Groups: Groups that specifically cater to existential concerns allow individuals to share and learn from others' experiences.

The Path to a Meaningful Life

Focusing on personal growth and actively seeking one's life purpose can significantly reduce the intensity of existential crises. A life lived with intention, where every decision aligns with one's core values and aspirations, can bring about inner joy and fulfillment.

Moreover, reflecting upon life's positive qualities and moments of admiration can cultivate gratitude. This shifts the focus from existential despair to appreciation, making life's challenges more manageable.

In summary, while existential concerns are an inherent part of the human experience, they don't have to dictate the quality of one's life. With the right strategies, professional support, and a focus on leading a meaningful life, individuals can navigate their existential dilemmas and emerge with greater clarity, purpose, and inner peace.

Finding a Path Through Negative Emotions and Existential Anxiety

In the intricate maze of life, grappling with existential concerns is a shared human experience. These profound questions surrounding life's meaning, purpose, and inherent value have long been subjects of contemplation. From influencing art and philosophy to shaping our understanding of mental health, existential crises are woven into the fabric of our existence.

The journey ahead, though fraught with uncertainty and challenges, is also replete with potential and hope. Recognizing and addressing an existential crisis isn't about negating or dismissing these intense feelings but acknowledging their depth and complexity. It's about embracing the challenge head-on, understanding the intricacies, and seeking the tools and support to navigate through them.

Understanding is the first step to healing. When we understand the root causes and triggers of our existential anxiety, we empower ourselves to make informed decisions about our mental well-being. Compassion, both self-directed and from others, acts as a balm, soothing the turbulence of these deep-seated concerns. Through empathy, we realize we are not alone in our struggles, paving the way for more open conversations and shared coping strategies.

But the importance of professional mental health support cannot be understated. With the rising prevalence of existential crises in modern society, tapping into resources like existential therapy, online therapy platforms, and support groups becomes vital. These avenues offer tailored guidance, allowing individuals to unravel their existential dilemmas and discover a renewed sense of purpose and direction.

In the face of existential anxiety, remember this: Every individual, at some point in their life, grapples with these questions. Yet, it's through this struggle that we often find our most authentic selves. The path might be rocky and uncertain, but with understanding, compassion, and the right support, we can find our way through the storm and emerge stronger, clearer, and more connected to our true essence.

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About Julian Lewis

Julian Lewis is a driven and accomplished professional with a passion for driving positive change in the business world. He is the co-founder and COO at Zella Life.

His own experience as a professional of color in a Fortune 500 company led him to discover the limitations for advancement that many professionals like himself face. Determined to reach his full potential, Julian became an established business coach and entrepreneur, committed to supporting others in their pursuit of personal and professional growth.

Today, Julian is a recognized corporate trainer, coach, and leader, known for his ability to leverage real-life experiences and evidence-based methodologies to affect positive change within individuals and organizations. As the leader of Zella Life's coaching division, he is dedicated to empowering individuals and businesses to achieve their full potential.