How to Weather an Existential Crisis
There comes a time in the lives of many when there is a pause to reflect on the meaning of life. When this moment of Zen turns out to be especially troubling, puzzling, or even discombobulating, we have a name for it — an existential crisis. The symptoms of an existential crisis range from mild wonderment to turning your world on its head and it can feel much more extreme than a prolonged state of confusion or mental health issue.
There are numerous introductions into the potential rabbit hole of an existential crisis, but all of them usually begin with the question “Why am I here?” or “What is the meaning of life?” If you’re going through this, you aren’t alone.
Philosophers have contemplated the purpose of existence and existential anxiety all the way back through our collective past. Socrates had a prescription: “Know thyself.” The Indian sage Ramana Maharshi suggested asking, “Who am I?”
Why do we humans get caught up in this search for meaning, and why do we fear a meaningless life? Better yet, is there any meaning at all? Some people suggest there is a purpose to life that is bound to a sense of well-being, but the masters of enlightenment have long said that we are looking in the wrong direction — outward instead of inward.
Joseph Campbell taught that it’s better to stop searching for the meaning of life and to begin looking for the meaning in life. In other words, life deals us a certain hand of cards, and we need to find what makes us passionate about them. Campbell summed this up in three immortal words: “Follow your bliss” — and the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Don’t forget to love yourself.”
What is an Existential Crisis?
Psychologists generally define an existential crisis as a moment when you question the foundations of your life — whether life has meaning, purpose, or value. This issue is the topic of the philosophical school of existentialism. Sometimes the crisis comes out of the blue, and other times it bubbles until it rises to the surface. There are a number of possible causes for its arising, including a feeling of loneliness or isolation that even family members cannot help.
The big questions about life that lead to existential angst may be provoked by an event that reminds you of the preciousness of life, a lifelong search for the meaning of life, an occurrence that alters or destroys your sense of reality, a pleasurable or painful experience that impresses itself upon your feeling about life and what it means to be a human being or the depths of meditative practice.
What Can You Do About It?
Searching for how to overcome an existential crisis can be as disturbing as the crisis itself. This is because of the way the sense of self, which Carl Jung called the persona, perceives a meaningful life. Pioneers in psychology and philosophy, as well as mystics such as Jiddu Krishnamurti, have taught that the mind is conditioned since early childhood to identify with the body and all of its relationships.
Thus, the mind as a tool for learning and problem-solving also becomes a mind that is fraught with fear, the unending search for pleasure and ways to avoid pain, and a life purpose.
Krishnamurti called this sense of self “the center,” and in line with other mystics, he too realized that in the bigger picture, this egoic mind is the source of psychological suffering.
It is the sense of self, or what you call “me” or “I” that is so troubled by the trials and tribulations of life. As a byproduct of existential concerns, it may reach an existential crisis then turn upon itself to ask why it exists and what is at its core.
The prescription for an existential crisis is written at a fork in the proverbial road, with one way trying to soothe the troubled mind and get out of this upsetting stage, and the other way continuing down the path to find out who you are. For the latter path, Ramana Maharshi recommended a practice called self-inquiry.
He taught, “Of all the thoughts that arise in the mind, the ‘I’-thought is the first. It is only after the rise of this that the other thoughts arise. It is after the appearance of the first personal pronoun ‘I’ that the second and third personal pronouns [you, he, she, it] appear. Without the first personal pronoun, there will not be the second and third…By the inquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts and, like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself, in the end, get destroyed. Then there will arise Self-realization.”
But what if you don’t want to go down this road of self-searching because it’s too upsetting or scary, you’re too filled with negative thoughts, or the timing just isn’t right? In this case, you can tackle your crisis by psychological means.
Find a support group, review life events, look into your own life, seek out a qualified health professional (such as a psychotherapist), find a sense of purpose, read Jean-Paul Sartre, delve into the intricacies of human existence, and explore other avenues to develop a new perspective and to give life meaning.
The Psychological Remedy for an Existential Crisis
An existential crisis can often be accompanied by, or even confused for, depression, especially if accompanied by suicidal thoughts. It’s a blurry line because both represent a focusing inward upon an unsettled mind.
Australian psychologist Amanda White explained, “Angst, personal conflict, loneliness, hopelessness, and despair often make up the bleak and difficult emotional landscape of an existential crisis. Existential depression is a term sometimes used to describe major depressive episodes that stem from an existential crisis.”
She adds that no psychological or medical approach is comparably better able to address one’s crisis. This doesn’t mean that professional help isn’t useful, however, it just means that if you’re looking for a therapist, you have to find the right fit.
Psychological stages of development, wrote White, including existential crises, are about a person’s personal evolution. The mind may be moved to evolve when threatened. “When environmental and internal feedback indicates threat, in which ways of being and coping have become dysfunctional, then the system is challenged to revise its norms and to align with more meaningful goals, values, behaviors, and connections.
Understandably, to the mind, this process of adaptation can be very disorienting. Letting go of the known self may mean grief and loss; it can feel like dying.”
This is commonly referred to as “ego death,” and depending on the degree of attachment and identification to the body and all of its worldly characteristics, experiences, and possessions, the event can be anywhere from stifling to liberating. Thus, when the question arises as to how long an existential crisis lasts, the answer is that it depends upon the individual and how attached he or she is to this life that’s being lived.
Suffering as a Motivator
Paradoxically, the cure for an existential crisis is the same as the cause — suffering. When we suffer, we are driven to change; it’s life’s great motivator. The Dalai Lama explained, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways — either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” Few psychologists would disagree with such Buddhist wisdom. And Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Among the more notable quotes on existential crisis are those that address the concept of a psychological wake-up call and the meaning of life. Joseph Campbell said, “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” His prescription was: “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
Picasso said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, said, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone — we find it with another.”
So what do you do about an existential crisis? You work through it one way or another. You can look past your ego to find what has been present all along, you can give service to others, you can disappear into your work or hobby, you can plunge deeply into religious or contemplative life, or you can meditate your way out of it. The insight revealed through meditation shows that thought, life, and action are beyond your control.
Meditators, especially in the vipassana tradition, have found that life and how you perceive it can be met with awareness. This worldview enlightens you to the nature of all things that lie in the balance. If you can realize that you are a part of this balance and in sync with the universe then you’ll also realize that nothing has happened except for the evolution of thought, while you at your core, apart from the troubling the mind, remain the same.
7 Tools for Managing Overwhelming Emotions
Let’s face it – sometimes emotions get the best of us. Once we are triggered, it is tough to be in pain and not do something that essentially makes it worse. It’s much easier to numb the pain temporarily, but unfortunately those coping methods tend to have negative consequences. Basically, we get into the habit of choosing short-term symptom relief rather than addressing the core issue. You know what I’m talking about. How many of you have used alcohol to cope with your feelings of stress or sadness? How many of you ended up in much worse pain the next day or, worse, by the end of the night in tears in front of people you don’t quite trust?
Other popular unhealthy coping methods include: TV, drugs, sex, cigarettes, food, gambling, prescription pills, and the ever so popular sweeping-it-under-the-rug method. I must admit these methods are very tempting, but we all know how they end. What’s worse is that we still engage in these behaviors. Why?! Well for one, these unhealthy solutions work very well in the immediate. The second reason is that they are much easier to engage in and usually come with pleasure.
What are we hiding from, though? It’s funny, but when you think about it, we are only hiding from negative emotion. What’s an emotion? Is it going to kill us? Is it going to last forever? Sometimes emotions can feel that they are going to last forever, but the answer is no. All emotions crescendo and then dissipate. They imitate movement like a sign curve. Keeping this in mind would make it a lot easier to navigate our emotions. In order to deal with overwhelming emotions it is helpful to have a tool belt to reach for in times of distress. Here are a few of these less dangerous, and unfortunately, less fun, ways of dealing with these pesky negative emotions:
- Put it in perspective
Sometimes when you take a step back and think about what is really important to you, the problem that you think you are experiencing becomes very small. Ask yourself, “Will I still be in this much pain in one week? A month? One year from now? Will I remember this as significant? When I die do I want to remember this as something I spent a lot of time on?
Death is the ultimate teacher. Life is precious because it is limited. Nothing is worth sacrificing our happiness for. Nothing. It is impossible to control outside events that cause disturbance within, but it is completely in our control to either hang on or let it go. When we cling or feed the negative emotion, it robs us of our limited time on this planet. You are not your thoughts, your emotions, your body, or your things. Do not let death teach you this at the last minute.
- Engage in an act of self love
Many people understand being physically ill and respect it as painful. If you get sick, oftentimes your loved ones will tell you, “You poor thing. Go home and take a hot bath!” But there is a double standard when it comes to being in pain from emotions. If you don’t feel well emotionally, it can be tough to find an empathetic ear. We all get scared to share our emotions at times. We are ultimately afraid to hear, “Suck it up or get over it.” These words do more harm than good. If you are not feeling well emotionally, I challenge you to engage in acts of self-love as if you were physically ill. Go home. Take a hot bath. Sleep. You never know, it might make you feel a little better to take care of yourself. The idea would be to soothe with the 5 senses. Find activities that are soothing to your each of your senses:
- Sight: Look at the sunset
- Sound: Listen to relaxing music
- Touch: Get a massage or go to yoga
- Smell: Aromatherapy in a nice hot bath
- Taste: Eat something that brings up good memories or give yourself that treat you love!
- Put a time limit on it
When we are hurt it is so easy to get lost in the rabbit hole. In the rabbit hole we become the emotions and thoughts that are plaguing us. We ruminate and get lost in trying to solve a problem that is unsolvable. We feed the emotion by believing the catastrophic thoughts that come up like, “I hate him and myself for trusting him. He never liked me and was just using me the whole time. I never want to see him again. I am going to call his parents and tell them what a bad person he is.”
Instead of letting these thoughts come and go we might actually act on them. We feel so horrible that we avoid people, stay in bed for weeks at a time, drink too much, or eat too much. In order to avoid this, put a time limit on it. Tell yourself that you are going to think or talk about this problem for only one hour a day until it is resolved or you come to acceptance. Once the hour is over, choose an activity that is the opposite of the emotion you are feeling to change your mood.
If you are sad, listen to happy music. If there is anger, watch a comedy on TV. If you are stressed and tense, go take a yoga class. Everyone deserves a break from time to time. Do not let one area of your life that is causing you pain engulf your entire world. You have the ultimate control over your happiness.
- Let the negative energy pass through you
Negative emotion is just negative energy. It does not help to squash it down, numb it or avoid it. The only way, is to face it head on and allow it to pass through you. This takes some bravery on your part. You must allow yourself to feel the pain. There are some tools that can help while you do this. You can allow yourself to get the support you need. Oftentimes, it is very difficult to be vulnerable and admit to others that you are having a hard time. In order to move the negative energy through your body it helps to talk to another trusted person. You can also release the energy by exercising, writing in a journal, or simply relaxing your body and letting your preconceived notions of how it “should” be, go.
- Observe the emotion
You are not the emotion or your thoughts. You can take a step back and witness what your thoughts and emotions do when there is a disturbance. Watch the thoughts or self-talk get faster as they ask you to fix them before they become abusive. Watch the emotion crescendo and dissipate. Do not avoid. Avoidance makes the emotion and the thoughts louder. Allow yourself to have the emotion, don’t fight it, and don’t escalate it by falling down the rabbit hole and attaching to the thoughts. Eventually it will pass. You do not really need to do anything for the pain to subside. It will on its own.
By this, I do not mean that you should not deal with your problems. By all means take care of yourself and your responsibilities. Just do not make decisions when you are in a heightened state. Wait until the emotion passes and then solve the problem. You will be able to see much clearer once the intensity has lessened.
- Delay, distract, and then decide
This tool, created by Marsha Linehan, is useful in order to inhibit negative reaction to a negative emotion. Many times, if we make a decision in the emotion it will make it worse. Basically, any negative urge or craving lasts for about 20 to 30 minutes. Help yourself by delaying your reaction and any subsequent actions for 20 to 30 minutes with a distraction.
You can go to work, help someone else, go for a walk, take a break from the trigger, read, or watch a movie. Once the time is up, make a pros and cons list as to whether your reaction is worth doing. Usually you will decide not to react the original way you had planned. For instance, slashing your boyfriend’s tires out because he lied to you probably won’t seem like such a good idea once some of the anger has passed.
- Become aware of your physical and emotional vulnerabilities
Sometimes our emotions can get the best of us when we are not feeling well. Become aware of your triggers. Ask yourself if you have any physical or emotional vulnerabilities that are getting in the way of managing your emotions. Some of these vulnerabilities are: hunger, lack of sleep, injury, illness, stress, lack of support, crisis, past trauma, negative core beliefs, etc. If you notice that the current problem is escalated due to one or more of these factors you may want to try to take care of the vulnerability first in order to prevent and manage the escalation of your emotion.
Embrace Your Emotions
My wish for us all is to start viewing negative emotion as an opportunity to practice these new skills rather than allowing the emotion to be a threat to our self-concept or survival. We do not have to fight and we do not need to flee (run or avoid). I hope that one or more of these resonates with you, and the next time you are in the emotion, you can remember to pull this list out of your wallet. Remember that it will pass, it is ok to have the emotion, and above all else you don’ t necessarily need to do anything. Let go and let it pass through you, because it will!
If you would like to learn more please visit or contact me at Good Therapy San Diego.
This article was inspired by The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer