Navigating the Depths: Understanding and Conquering the Existential Crisis

You will face moments in life when you think deeply about its meaning and your purpose in it, not having a clue where you’re headed or what your next move should look like. This is the classic definition of an existential crisis: a time of deep questioning of life and extensive self-reflection.

Everyone goes through it at least once in their lives. They start having second thoughts about who they are, what their core values are, and where they stem from. Addressing these questions can be an emotional rollercoaster — but a necessary one. It’s a  “Journey of self-discovery” — as it will give you clues about who you are, or better yet, who you want to be.

This article will explore the reasons behind an existential crisis, how to tell if you’re going through one, and how to navigate through it. 

Causes and triggers of an existential crisis

 Understanding the underlying causes of an existential crisis is one key step to overcoming it. The following sections illustrate how  existential dread could happen:

Life transitions and significant events

Whether it’s graduating from university, going through a career change, losing a loved one, or reaching a significant milestone (like turning 30),  these major life events are all moments of transition, during which you will most likely question the purpose and direction of your life. And there is no better catalyst to an existential crisis than a transition phase. During these phases, a disruption to your routine will occur as everything around you is changing. The realization that nothing in life is certain will take over, ultimately leading to questioning your purpose.

Philosophical contemplations on life’s meaning

Philosophical contemplations in the context of existential crises and resilience delve deep into the human experience of grappling with existence’s inherent uncertainty and absurdity. Existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre emphasized the idea that life has no predetermined purpose, leaving individuals to confront the daunting task of creating their own meaning. Sartre famously stated, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” 

On the other hand, Friedrich Nietzsche encourages you to embrace life’s challenges, asserting that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” 

In the face of existential crises, these philosophers encourage you to find purpose within your choices, fostering resilience by recognizing your power in shaping your life amidst the chaos of existence. Through deep philosophical reflection, you can navigate the storms of uncertainty and discover meaning in the very act of living.

The role of identity and self-discovery

An existential crisis thrives when who you are doesn’t align with what you do. When societally imposed rules don’t fit the life you want to lead, you will begin feeling lost in life and experiencing emptiness. This pushes you to ask yourself what your true interests are, what you want your life to look like, and what you want to be like. It will ultimately give you clues to start shaping your identity and pave the way to personal growth.

Recognizing the signs of an existential crisis

An existential crisis looks different from one person to another. It is quite important to understand how it can present itself according to your personality, which is explained in the following:  

Emotional and psychological indicators

These indicators include a sense of meaninglessness, anxiety, and emptiness. Individuals going through an existential crisis experience high levels of self-awareness while searching for meaning in their existence.

Behavioral patterns and changes in outlook

Research indicates that changes in your behavior and outlook signify an existential crisis. During this period, you may withdraw socially, isolate yourself from others, or lose interest in previously enjoyed activities. You may also be sensitive to existential themes in literature, art, or philosophical discussions.

Differentiating existential crisis from other mental health issues

Differentiating an existential crisis from other mental health issues is crucial so that the right support and treatment for every condition can be availed.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), an existential crisis is characterized by a specific focus on questions of meaning, purpose, and identity.  This distinguishes it from other mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety disorders, which may have overlapping symptoms but differ in their underlying causes and treatment approaches. To ensure an appropriate response, consult a mental health professional. They can help identify and address an existential crisis, ensuring individuals receive the necessary support tailored to their unique experiences.

Coping mechanisms and strategies

Once you have identified that you’re going through an existential crisis and examined why it could happen to you, figuring out how to deal with it is the next step. The following are methods on how to navigate through and overcome an existential crisis: 

Embrace uncertainty and change

To truly thrive in life, it is essential to acknowledge and make peace with the inevitability of uncertainty. Doing so can alleviate apprehension and cultivate the ability to adapt. Embracing change is a crucial step toward freeing yourself from inflexible assumptions and welcoming new growth opportunities.

One of the most effective ways to embrace change is to let go of the roadmap you had in mind of how your life is supposed to go. You will reach your goal, but it doesn’t have to be by the method you envision. Also, think of every change that happens in your life as an opportunity to learn, and ask yourself: “What is this situation trying to teach me? How does this help me become better and do better?” 

Find purpose and meaning in daily life

According to research, personal values and passions can be aligned with activities to cope with an existential crisis. This alignment provides fulfillment and direction. Creating meaningful narratives for life by setting short-term and long-term goals can help overcome existential challenges. Purpose and motivation are developed with such narratives. 

You can find meaning in everyday life by fully immersing yourself in every experience you go through and truly allowing yourself to feel. You can also find purpose in loving yourself or loving someone. One of the most common steps of finding purpose in everyday life is fully engaging in a task or deed. Meaning and purpose look different to everyone, so another important step is to not compare your journey to anyone else’s. 

Cultivate self-awareness and mindfulness

Navigating existential struggles can be done with clarity through cultivating self-awareness and practicing mindfulness. 

  • Understanding yourself and your experiences can be achieved by engaging in self-reflection and attuning to thoughts, emotions, and sensations. 
  • Mindfulness practices like journaling or meditation can promote acceptance and non-judgmental awareness, which is an effective coping mechanism during an existential crisis.

Engage in creative and introspective practices:

People often use music, books, and art as distractions from everyday stressors. Research proved that they are coping mechanisms when dealing with an existential crisis, as are introspective practices like: 

  • Expressing yourself through art: Paint, write, or play an instrument to express your emotions and thoughts about your crisis.
  • Reflecting through journaling: Take time to write about your thoughts, feelings, and life questions. It can bring clarity and insights.
  • Practicing mindfulness and meditation: Be present and aware of your thoughts and emotions without judging them. This helps you understand yourself better.
  • Having meaningful conversations: Talk to trusted people about your thoughts and concerns. They can offer different perspectives and support.

Seek therapy and counseling

It is proven that therapy is a safe space for people to explore their emotions, and there are trained professionals who specialize in existential therapy who can guide you through the process of self-discovery. Therapy will provide guidance, support, and tools on how to manage existential distress.

In conclusion

It’s normal to feel lost sometimes, especially during major life changes. So, be mindful of whether you’re experiencing any signs of existential despair, ask for help if needed, and sit down with yourself; start asking questions about the life you want and how you can get it. And remember, everyone goes through it; even those who seem to have everything figured out don’t.

If you would like to see more resources on existential crisis, check out the Personal Resilience Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Personal Resilience Science Labs today.

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