Not all forms of therapy focus solely on the past. In existential therapy, a therapist can help you examine the bigger picture of your existence and values.
Imagine waking up, washing your face, looking into the mirror, and thinking, “Is this it?”
Perhaps you feel this way because you’ve lost someone you love. Or you recently experienced a milestone, birthday, or life transition, and it feels empty or different than you imagined it would.
Or maybe you don’t know why you feel this way… You just do.
If you’re questioning what you’re doing here, and it’s interfering with your quality of life, you’re not alone. Existential therapy can help you explore deeper questions to find meaning in your life.
You may have already heard the term “existential crisis.”
“Existential” refers to your existence, as in, what it means to you to be a human being.
Existential therapy is an extension of this line of thinking. It’s a philosophical style of therapy that explores the human condition.
“The goal of existential therapy is to help you find meaning and purpose in your life as you confront and articulate your values,” says Iris Waichler, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago.
Existential therapy explores four key concepts:
“Existential therapy investigates matters of life and death and explores how to get the most meaning out of life,” Waichler says. “This process may help enhance your self-awareness, create more meaningful relationships, and help identify what brings the most meaning into your life.”
In many ways, existential therapy sessions seem similar to other therapy sessions, says Dr. Lea McMahon, a licensed counselor in Houston.
“Therapists ask you standard questions, you answer them honestly, and the session builds from there,” she explains. “You may talk about your anxieties, fears, and concerns, while your therapist helps you get to the root of these, in order to acknowledge and overcome them.”
There are a few key differences between this and other treatments, though.
“The approach of existential therapy does not dwell that much on the past, as other treatments do, but only uses it as a tool to gain insight into one’s self,” adds McMahon.
Also, your therapist will likely focus on your well-being as a whole instead of tackling one symptom at a time.
You may explore questions such as:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
- Why do bad things happen?
- Does life have any meaning?
- What’s the point of my existence?
When you speak about your thoughts and feelings, this can encourage introspection, says McMahon.
Also, your therapist may guide and support you with:
- empathic reflection: connecting the dots between your emotions and events
- Socratic questioning: helping you define your beliefs and core values
- active listening: using subtle encouragers to help you open up
Existential therapy can address a wide range of concerns.
According to Waichler, existential therapy can be effective for people with:
Even if there’s no formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) for your specific experience, you may still find this modality helpful.
The uses for existential therapy are vast. Research shows that existential therapy has supported many people, including:
All of this is valid, and these can all be good reasons to try existential therapy.
In general, it may be a good fit for you if:
- You have a desire to explore deep concepts.
- You possess a strong ability to self-reflect.
- You prefer intellectual forms of therapy.
- You want to understand your values and motivations.
- You acknowledge the role of pain in the growth process (post-traumatic growth).
Post-traumatic growth, while uncomfortable, is a core tenant of this modality.
“Some may view this as depressing or negative,” explains Waichler. “But the reason for this is inherent in existential therapy. It’s the notion that people must experience some type of suffering in order to begin to explore and understand these deeper levels of the human condition.”
In other words, as painful as it may be, you grow through what you go through.
Overall, existential therapy can help you get to your “why.”
Some common benefits of existential therapy include:
- addressing fear of the unknown
- finding a sense of meaning in your life
- motivation to live your life to the fullest
- increased openness to life’s opportunities
- greater self-control because of self-reflection
- understanding your goals, values, and relationships
That said, existential therapy may not be the best fit for everyone.
“One limitation is that the process may be overly intellectual. Also, it may conflict with some religious beliefs,” says McMahon.
Some people may also find it too challenging because it welcomes painful experiences as a catalyst to your growth. You may feel called to address other symptoms before opening to these kinds of conversations.
If you’re curious about trying existential therapy, you don’t have to see a specialist to experience the benefits. Elements of this modality can be woven into your preferred therapy of choice, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Research from 2021 shows an increasing overlap between these two types of therapy. In tandem, existential therapy and CBT can help get to the root of your thought patterns and how they may impact your current behaviors.
For example, if you experience fear of death or anxiety about the future, existential therapy can help you determine why that is, while CBT can provide tools to help you cope with those anxious thoughts.
Existential therapy focuses on your essence as a human being, rather than specific symptoms or an overall diagnosis.
Your therapist’s techniques can be used to explore the meaning of life (for you), what your values are, and how you can then translate these ideas into tangible action.
Existential therapy may require a lot of introspection and curiosity about deep concepts. It’s typically a good fit for people who enjoy more intellectual forms of therapy.
To find out if you can benefit from this therapy modality, you can use the Psych Central search tools to find a therapist with experience in existential therapy.