WHO AM I? What’s my purpose? What mark can I make on the world?
Just about everyone has asked themselves these questions at some point in their lives, usually when they’re going through new life events. Pondering your identity and purpose can be a sign that you’re going through an existential crisis.
“While an existential crisis is not guaranteed to occur for everyone, it’s a relatively common experience that involves questioning your purpose in life and whether your life has meaning,” says Vanessa Kennedy, Ph.D., director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery.
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An existential crisis can happen at any time of life; during your teen years or adulthood. “It might signal the need to clarify your values, what’s important to you, and whether you’re living in accordance with those values,” Kennedy says.
It forces you to examine your life in new ways, explains psychotherapist Chase Cassine, L.C.S.W. That’s not always a bad thing.
“We don’t have an infinite amount of years here on earth,” he says. “So should I focus on chasing things that have no meaning, or should I focus on things that have meaning within the allotted time I have here? Rhetorical question, but it forces us to look for meaning.”
For some people, these questions can be distressing, and affect their quality of life or daily functioning, Kennedy says. When that happens, you might need to reach out to a mental health professional.
Wondering if you’re going through an existential crisis? Experts share some signs, what an existential crisis feels like, and when you should talk to someone about it all.
What Is an Existential Crisis?
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is considered the father of the philosophy of existentialism, which is where the concept of the existential crisis comes from. Existentialism is the belief that the nature of someone’s existence is individualized and varies from person to person—basically, each person chooses and devotes themselves to a specific meaning and direction in life.
An existential crisis can look and feel differently for different people at different life stages.
It can occur in adolescence when you deal with identity issues related to the future, according to the American Psychological Association. In adulthood, it’s usually related to more complex identity issues, and later in life, it might revolve around mortality or legacy.
“Existential crises force us to think, ‘OK, there’s a transition going on in our life, what is our meaning, what is the purpose behind our life?’” Cassine says.
Signs You’re Having an Existential Crisis
An existential crisis affects everyone differently. Kennedy and Cassine say these are some signs to pay attention to:
- You don’t feel motivated
- You question whether your work is important
- You regret past choices
- You’re preoccupied with your own mortality—such as focusing on the things you want to accomplish before you die
- You start seeing your actions as meaningless—like no matter what you do, nothing changes, so “what’s the point?”
- You feel like you’re not working toward a bigger purpose
- You feel like you’re going through the motions and aren’t emotionally connected to your day-to-day
- You wonder about your legacy and what people will remember about your contributions to the world
- You feel lost
- You constantly worry or feel a sense of heaviness
- You feel isolated
What Causes an Existential Crisis?
Any life event, good or bad, might cause you to start thinking about your purpose and identity.
Living through a natural disaster or near-death experience can jar you into a state of shock and lead you to face your mortality, Kennedy says. “A foreshortened sense of time may push you to make changes to optimize your life.”
“The experience may come on suddenly or build gradually until you’re asking, ‘What am I doing with my life and why?’” Kennedy says.
Positive life changes, like having a baby, getting a new pet, or buying a house, might also trigger an existential crisis, Cassine says.
“Those are exciting things, but they can bring on an amount of worry,” he adds.
Is an Existential Crisis Always a Bad Thing?
Going through an existential crisis isn’t always a negative experience. Cassine says it can help you reevaluate your life and find a new purpose and meaning.
“An existential crisis can be a growth opportunity,” Kennedy says. “It can help us connect with something greater than ourselves, whether that’s community, family, spirituality, or legacy.”
The experience pushes you to connect with your values and guides you in a more meaningful direction, she explains.
How Can an Existential Crisis Affect Your Mental Health?
An existential crisis can be distressing for some people. Cassine says it could lead to anxiety, depression, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts.
“The person is feeling an unmet need that leads them to shut down all sense of meaning and question their very existence,” Kennedy says. “They may even consider suicide if they stay stuck in a crisis and feel that they have no other options.”
How to Work Through an Existential Crisis
To overcome an existential crisis, Cassine suggests taking these steps:
- Connect with people, such as family and friends, or join a book club or fitness group, to avoid being isolated
- Talk about how you feel with people close to you
- Keep a gratitude journal, where you write down what’s meaningful to you and what you enjoy
- Practice mindfulness by spending more time on the activities that you enjoy
- Try to adjust your mindset to view the existential crisis as something that will help you grow and make you happier
Sometimes making a drastic change—like quitting your job, moving to a new city, or ending a relationship—will help you work toward your bigger goals, Kennedy says.
When to Seek Professional Help
Kennedy says it’s a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional if the feelings surrounding your existential crisis are causing:
- Low mood
- Anxiety, including panic attacks
- Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Changes in your sleep and appetite
- Suicidal thoughts
- Agoraphobia, or being fearful of leaving your home
- Changes in your day-to-day functioning that make you unable to take care of yourself
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.