The meaning of life is one of the world’s greatest mysteries and also a unique and intimate experience for each of us.
It’s natural to question it and to want to dig deeper.
In fact, existential thoughts and questions are something that almost everyone has faced at some point in time: Am I my soul or my body? What’s the true meaning of life? What’s my life purpose?
But when these thoughts become intrusive and you find yourself overwhelmed with unanswerable questions, despair and dread might get a hold of you. This is what some people call an existential crisis.
An existential crisis or existential dread can be described as persistent negative feelings and emotions linked to wondering about the inherent meaning of life.
The phrase comes from a school of philosophy known as existentialism. It focuses on exploring the meaning of human existence and creating your own purpose in a world that often feels purposeless.
On the other hand, a crisis is considered an emotional and psychological reaction to a perceived or real life event. This reaction may make coping and everyday functioning a challenge.
An existential crisis may result from intense feelings of despair as you consider questions like, “What is the point?” or “Why does any of this matter?”
Those strong emotions can increase when your questions remain unanswerable. This may cause you to feel angry, helpless, anxious, or depressed.
Although it may lead you to experience symptoms of depression, an existential crisis isn’t the same as an existential depression.
Existential dread isn’t considered a formal diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean what you’re feeling isn’t real or should be ignored.
While it may not yet be included in a diagnostic manual, an existential crisis is a recognized state of mind both researched and studied in clinical settings.
Sometimes, existential crises can have a positive effect. You may discover questioning life leads you down new paths or motivates you to make important life changes.
Existential dread can sometimes overlap with symptoms of certain mental health conditions, but it’s not a formal diagnosis. Some of these conditions include:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- borderline personality disorder
Anybody can have an existential crisis during their lifetime. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re living with a mental health condition or will at some point.
Questions about life and existence may arise at any time without any apparent reason. But in many instances, these thoughts are related to important life events, like the loss of a loved one or unemployment.
Age may influence the type of existential dread you experience.
When you’re a teen, for example, you may find yourself constantly worried about your life path and career choice. This type of existential questioning is often referred to as a sophomore crisis. This is a type of existential crisis.
An adult existential crisis, which can occur when you’re in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, may have more of a focus on what choices you’re currently making or opportunities you may have missed.
If you’re over the age of 50, you may be experiencing later existential dread and your focus may be on things you didn’t do, the possibility of death, spiritual paths, or chronic illness.
Questioning the meaning of life, your life purpose, and the universe doesn’t mean you’re having an existential crisis.
When feelings about these questions start to dominate or impact your day-to-day life, however, you may have shifted toward existential dread.
When paired with pervasive thoughts about life’s unanswered questions, signs of existential crisis may include:
- rising levels of anxiety, including unexpected panic attacks
- constant irritability and skepticism
- symptoms of clinical depression
- unexplained fear
- feelings of loneliness and emptiness
- lack of motivation to work or take care of yourself
- a sense of negative self-worth
- persistent relationship conflicts or doubts about relationships
- symptoms of grief
- sudden suicidal thoughts
Most thoughts associated with an existential crisis fall into one of seven categories:
- anxiety about death
- grieving change or losses
- concerns about freedom of choice
- self dignity
- quality and depth of relationships
- meaning of existence
- mysteries of the universe
An existential crisis related to death often means you’re focused on the possibility of dying and what happens after.
For some people, this existential anxiety may accompany or be a result of illness or aging. For example, a diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness may cause someone to become anxious about what the experience of dying feels like or what awaits after that.
Loss or change grief
Sometimes personal loss or sudden changes in life can lead to an existential crisis.
If you become disabled, for example, you may have questions about self-worth and purpose. Grieving the loss of an everyday function may push you to wonder about what your life may be like from now on.
The loss of a loved one can also spark thoughts about the finality of death or the meaning of life without that person.
Freedom of choice
The ability to choose your path in life can be very motivating.
But you may experience existential dread when you feel as though your choices in life may be taken away. You may also experience a crisis if you wonder about fate and destiny versus free will.
Life events that affect your sense of dignity and self-worth may cause existential crises.
You may have lost everything you own, for example. This, combined with cultural and social pressures, may lead you to believe you’ve lost your dignity. This could cause you to wonder about who you are without your possessions and might result in an existential crisis.
Human relationships are an important aspect of the human experience.
A sense of isolation or aloneness, created by deteriorated personal relationships, could lead you to experience existential dread.
Just as personal relationships are important, so is the quality of those relationships.
Experiencing repeated or long-term relationship challenges may lead you to wonder about your life purpose, for example.
Meaning of life
Wondering whether there’s any meaning to human life is one of the most common introspective questions. You might wonder why humanity exists and what your role could be on that timeline. These thoughts can become overwhelming for some people.
Mystery of the universe
Going beyond the meaning of life on earth are questions about the universe and the mystery of unending space. It may make you feel small or inconsequential, overwhelmed by thoughts of not knowing.
When thoughts about your existence and life itself make you feel anxious or depressed or are negatively affecting you in other ways, it may be time to see a mental health professional.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and, in some cases, medication can help ease symptoms related to existential dread.
In addition to professional support, there are a few things you could focus on to step away from feelings of dread.
These options include:
- taking it step by step and starting small
- keeping perspective and focusing on things you’re grateful for
- nurturing current or new relationships
- focusing on the self
- finding a support group
- looking to the future, not the past
- trying complementary therapies
Instead of focusing on broad, unanswerable questions, consider dismantling these topics into smaller segments.
Finding answers to smaller questions can create a sense of satisfaction. This can help you see how your life impacts the world around you on a daily basis and why you do make a difference as an individual.
For example, instead of wondering what your life purpose is, focus on what you did and accomplished today and how that made you feel. Do you want to continue doing this? And then go from there.
Part of living with existential dread is feeling as though there’s no point to anything.
Keeping track of important things you’re grateful for can be a great reminder of how small things in life can have positive impacts.
You may not understand or have answers for bigger questions in life, but you know what you feel grateful for.
When you feel alone, isolated, or as though no one around cares, it can be easier to fall into existential dread.
A focus on building and maintaining healthy relationships can create a desire and purpose to do things for those you care about.
Focusing on the self
Focusing on the things that bring you joy and fulfillment may help ward off an existential crisis.
Hobbies and goal-oriented activities can create a sense of accomplishment and pride in your capabilities as a person. Training and developing new skills can also open new opportunities to feel you have more to live for.
Joining support groups
You’re not the only one with existential thoughts. Speaking with people who share your concerns can help you work through your feelings and even find alternative answers to your questions.
You may also find someone has a perspective that helps you understand some of the topics you wonder about.
Past events and life circumstances can sometimes be heavy burdens.
Remembering that the past can’t be changed but that the future is full of possibilities can help motivate you toward positive outcomes.
Again, focus on this afternoon, tomorrow morning, and the next day. Go step by step.
Keeping your mind and body healthy can be a powerful tool when combating negative thoughts.
Complementary therapies may prove beneficial when managing thoughts of existential crisis. Meditation, mindfulness, reiki, massage, and breathing exercises may help to encourage relaxation and clarity of thought.
Wondering about life and whether you have a greater purpose in the world is natural. Many people have these existential thoughts at some point in their lives.
These thoughts might be a result of significant life events or prolonged negative states of mind. Sometimes, there isn’t a reason why these thoughts pop into your head.
Thinking about these matters doesn’t always lead to an existential crisis. It’s the strong emotions that can result from these questions or to not finding clear answers what could lead you to experience dread.
An existential crisis can affect you negatively or positively. It can create feelings of depression or anxiety, but it can also become a powerful motivator for life changes.
You aren’t alone if you want answers to the big questions in the universe.
If you find yourself preoccupied by those questions or if they have a negative impact on you, you may want to seek out the guidance of a mental health professional.
These resources can help:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists