5 Signs You’re Having An Existential Crisis And How To Overcome It

existential crisis shown by woman thinking

Every single person will go through at least one existential crisis in their lifetime. It’s an unavoidable human experience that can show up after big life changes take place. It forces us to face our reality and figure out if the way we’re living is truly what we want. While there are things you can do on your own to help the process along, seeking professional help is always an option as well.

Key Takeaways

  • Existential crises can happen based on a variety of triggers, but they all force you to look into the current choices you’ve made and see if they still align with what makes you happy. 
  • Choosing to get professional help when your existential crisis stops you from living your daily life is a great self-care option.
  • While they’re not something most people want to experience, one positive of an existential crisis is that you can take the opportunity to figure out what you want from life.

What is an existential crisis?

Have you ever seen one of those movies where the main character is a 50 something-year-old man driving a really noisy sports convertible? He zooms down the road revving his engine for maximum sound effect, showing off unnaturally white teeth, and a fake tan that’s noticeable from miles away. Suddenly, the camera turns to two random people standing on the sidewalk watching him drive by, and you can see their faces of disappointment as they shake their heads at him. 

That’s probably what the writers of the movie thought an existential (or mid-life) crisis looks like. And while they’re not entirely wrong, the concept of an existential crisis runs so much deeper than just wanting to look younger. 

The idea of an existential crisis stems from the feelings of inadequacy a person can have at any point in their life. It’s basically what we call the feeling of not knowing what your purpose or direction is in life or the emotions that come from not being happy with your current life choices (essentially, some really intense anxiety). In the case of the movie example above, and without knowing much more details, it wouldn’t be crazy to think the man is trying to hold on to his past youth in order to not face the fact that he’s not happy with his life at that time. It allows him to go back to a time when he was feeling happier and more centered.  

Why do existential crises happen?

Existential crises are an incredibly normal experience to have if you’re a human being living in a society. So normal in fact, that you’re likely to have more than one throughout your life. And, for many different reasons.

Here are some of the main causes:

Unexpected roadblocks

These are changes that we didn’t plan to happen and that affect the overall life goal we had set up for ourselves in large and unexpected ways. Things like being fired from a job, a worldwide pandemic, or an unpredicted medical emergency. 

Crises originating from these types of situations are moments that put the carefully crafted life plans we had on hold. They force us to be patient and look for creative solutions. And in the end, they might also be the push we need to figure out the original plan isn’t what we want anymore. 

Big life changes

Most situations will fall under this category. Having a child, getting promoted, moving countries, getting married – all can have a huge impact. It’s important to keep in mind as well that just because something big has happened it doesn’t necessarily mean it will push us into a crisis. 

The reason for this is that an existential crisis will be directly related to where in our overall goal this life changes falls. If you want to live somewhere else but suddenly got promoted into a job that pays you much more, you might have to sit down and think if this life change is still something you want. 

Feeling a lack of control

This is a very common reason as to which you might be dealing with an existential crisis one day. As human beings, we crave control of our environment in order to know what comes next. It’s this knowledge that keeps us safe from danger and allows us to not have to stay alert 24/7. Which is an incredibly draining way to navigate life. 

But, when that control is taken from us and we’re forced to deal with things without preparation it can force us to face the endless possibilities of life. And when we take a moment to realize that, we might also find that where we’re standing at the time is not even remotely close to where we actually want to be.  

Unhappiness with your current life’s direction

Let’s say you made a series of choices that brought you to today. At the time you made them, you were pretty confident that they were the right ones. You choose your school, your job, your friends – even the hobbies you have. 

One day, however, you wake up to get ready for work and the idea of having to commute to your office and go through your to-do list makes you want to not get up at all. But, you chose this? Shouldn’t you be grateful that you got what you wanted? Are you even allowed to think about wanting something different? That sounds like a textbook existential crisis. Reevaluating our current life only to realize that we don’t want it anymore is much more common than you would think.  

Loss of a loved one

While someone that we hold dear and near passing away is a huge loss that can throw us through a loop, it’s not the only type of loss that can affect us. Breaking up with a romantic partner, a friend, or even a co-worker that we really enjoyed leaving can all be huge triggers for an existential crisis. 

This is because, as we mentioned above, changes (big or small) that happen around us without our control force us to face new situations and reevaluate where we stand. 

How can I tell if I’m having an existential crisis?

As with all mental health issues, there are some things you can keep an eye out for to tell if you’re experiencing an existential crisis. 

But, do keep in mind that having any (or all) of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you’re experiencing a crisis. 

5 strategies for overcoming your existential crisis

If you find yourself suddenly realizing you are indeed going through an existential crisis and you have no idea what to do, keep reading. While professional help might be something you want to consider, you don’t need to jump to that option if you’re not comfortable with it yet. 

Instead, you can start your own research on ways to address this and find the ones that work best for you. We started the process for you to make things easier. Below are 5 tips from a very helpful YouTube video by the Existential Guide channel (you can check out the video here).

  • Embrace it. As they mention in the video, take the time to sit with your feelings and not fight them. It will allow you to sit down with yourself and try to figure out what you want out of life at that moment.
  • Figure out what triggered it. If you can find the source of the trigger then you’re on the right track to navigating through those feelings and emotions it caused. 
  • Speak up. One of the biggest feelings revolving around existential crises is that it makes us feel alone. There couldn’t possibly be anyone else out there that’s been through this! Not only are those people out there, but they might be able to make you feel better but showing you you’re not alone. 
  • Face the inevitable. Being aware of your own mortality is a scary and difficult thing to do. But achieving it can give you an unparalleled sense of freedom.
  • Admire the new perspective. One of the positives about an existential crisis is that it forces you to look at your life from a different perspective. Use that as your compass to try and figure out what direction you want to move towards. 

How long do existential crises last? 

It really depends. Existential crises are a very personal experience to go through and the same way no two person’s mental health journey is the same neither is navigating these types of crises. It can last anywhere from a few days to several years – especially if it goes unaddressed for long periods of time. 

That said, there are some interesting stats we can share to help shed light on what other people have said about their experiences. For example, a small informal study was conducted where 250 people were polled. Of those 250 people, 19% said it lasted 3-6 months, 9% said it lasted over 2 years, and 34% said they’re still going through it.

In the end, it should take however long you feel is necessary to safely move through those feelings in order to get through the other side better than when you started. 

Do existential crises lead to nihilism? 

It certainly can if left unchecked for long. Nihilism is the idea that life has no meaning at all, and therefore there’s no point in living it. It’s a normal outcome that can happen from having an existential crisis, especially if it’s the type that revolves around your purpose in life or understanding what happiness means. 

When to get professional help

When it comes to professional help there’s no specific answer as to when you should choose this option. If your symptoms are just starting and you want to stop them in their tracks, then a professional can help. 

But, if you find that you’re feeling worse or the same after several months and it’s stopping you from living your life that would be an even better time to reach out for help. You don’t have to face hard emotional moments on your own, and having someone who trained specifically on how to help you could end up doing wonders. 

Are there any positives to having an existential crisis?

Absolutely! While the initial feeling of experiencing an existential crisis can feel intense and negative (anxiety, loneliness, confusion) there are also some positive things that can come from the experience. 

The main one is the fact that you’ve allowed yourself to be open to the slew of possibilities that life has to offer. Do you want to quit your 9-5 and become a digital nomad? Or maybe you want a job that pays you 5 times more? Perhaps you want friends that share your passions? What about starting a work out routine? The options are truly endless and the sky is the limit as to what you can accomplish. 

And, it was that existential crisis that opened the door for you to even consider that what you have now is actually not what you want at all.

Final Thoughts

Existential crises are basically your unconsciousness telling you that you have permission to want something else. That you’re not obligated to stay where you are and live a life that doesn’t fulfill you. There is no law, no rule book that says that you can’t choose something new. Ultimately, it’s up to you to listen and choose to take action.   

That said, certain levels of existential crisis, especially the kind that is preventing you from functioning normally is something you should consider getting professional help with. There is no shame in seeking help for something that you can’t do alone in order to reach your emotional baseline again. Once you’re there you can make better decisions about what you truly want your life to look like. 

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