Feel like you’re in the face of an Existential Crisis? It’s absolutely normal, perhaps as normal as going from school to college. Research suggests that experiencing an existential crisis is a part of being alive; it actually means that you’re working through important parts of your life to avoid unwanted consequences (Jacobsen, 2006). Read through to know more about what it is and possible solutions to help resolve them!
What is an Existential Crisis?
James (2007) defined it as a moment in which an individual questions the very foundation of their life. It may be seen as a confrontation and an experienced relationship of the existential realities. According to Yalom (1980), death, meaninglessness, freedom (responsibility), and isolation constitute the existential realities that may cause psychological problems and have no ultimate answers. The person experiences high levels of anxiety and confusion, which does not fully disappear until the crisis is acknowledged, if not resolved.
Breaking down its Components
Butenaite, Sondaite & Mockus (2016) conducted a theoretical analysis to draw out the components of an existential crisis. It has three major components: Emotional, Cognitive, and Behavioural.
The Emotional part includes emotional pain, sense of integrity, anxiety, fear, emotional vulnerability, guilt, and loneliness. They may interfere with personality but also reveal its potential.
The Cognitive component consists of loss of meaning & purpose, the realization of the end (death), loss of personal values, and an effect on decision making. The perception of these thoughts and subsequent reflection helps in resolving this aspect of an existential crisis.
The Behavioural component includes restrictive actions, loss of relationships, addiction, rituals, health problems, and anti-social behavior. These are ways in which the crisis manifests itself in everyday behaviors, and breaking the cycle becomes extremely important.
This comprehensive understanding of an existential crisis enables us to look at it beyond theory and indulge with it to surface interventions and ways to resolve it.
In 2016, Mary Andrews attempted to classify the commonly occurring existential crises and divided them into Sophomore Existential Crisis, Adult Existential Crisis, and Later Existential Crisis.
The Sophomore Crisis, as the name suggests, is a common occurrence during the late teens and early 20s when the individual’s major confusion emerges in the area of identity. They are looking to find themselves and develop their individual identity while the ongoing events of moving to high school, transitioning to college, choosing a career, and romantic relationships become a cause of anxiety. The anxiety may provide the impetus for growth or maybe debilitating if it is excessive and translates into panic attacks and social withdrawal. Hence, resolving the crisis successfully helps the individual progress further in life, where another existential alarm awaits.
In their mid or late 20s, as the person steps into adulthood, an adult existential crisis surfaces, which brings even more complex questions about identity. The person begins to ponder upon their worldview, their take on religion, sexuality, and level of independence. It is also the time when the individual must take responsibility for decision-making. Hence, resolving this crisis brings more clarity and stability to an individual’s life.
In Later adulthood, when identity seems to be established, decisions made, and more stability in life, another existential crisis may emerge. People now struggle with issues like pain, illness, and impending death, along with persistent thoughts of morality, legacy and achievement. They reflect upon their past and want to know that they’ve done the right thing and had a positive impact on people. These may raise questions in their head which can be the cause of their anxiety. For the ones who couldn’t fully resolve their sophomore or/and adult crises, this stage in later adulthood can be very difficult.
In her paper, Mary Andrews also proposed solutions to resolve these crises which come up in different stages of life. They are enlisted below:
The first one involves matching people with one another. It is suggested that people create relationships by matching one person to another by identifying similarities in interests and choices. This will help them navigate through their own challenges while having support and engagement.
The second proposed solution involves matching a person with the right career. The right career would be one where the individual continues to feel fulfilled and content and would not want to retire prematurely. Employers also attempt to look for such individuals as the work they produce is creative, innovative, and original. People who are unable to match their careers often lack passion, energy, and engagement and feel overwhelmed.
The third proposed solution is behavioral training on social perspective training. Social perspective taking, as the name suggests, is the ability to learn from other people’s experiences and perspectives. When one is able to step out of their immediate environment and explore the multitude of perspectives held by different people, it will enable them to integrate their individual as well as others’ perspective, especially while indulging in decisions and choices. It will equip you to deal with many aspects of an existential crisis.
Nonetheless, the first step toward resolving an existential crisis would be acknowledging that it is happening. Often, researchers say that they are inevitable. Every individual does find themselves in this situation once or more. Hence, it is absolutely normal to be going through one or helping a friend/family member/stranger. Psychotherapy is able to provide an individual with a safe space to look at these crises, explore their meaning, uncover fears and build an effective mechanism to cope. Therefore, we must not hesitate to seek the support available out there!
Clinical and Research Intern, PsychLine.in.
Andrews, M. (2016). The existential crisis.Behavioral Development Bulletin, 21(1), 104–109. https://doi.org/10.1037/bdb0000014
Butėnaitė, J., Sondaitė, J., & Mockus, A. (2016). COMPONENTS OF EXISTENTIAL CRISIS: A THEORETICAL ANALYSIS. International Journal of Psychology: Biopsychosocial Approach, ISSN 1941-7233 (Print), ISSN 2345-024X (Online). https://doi.org/10.7220/2345-024X.18.1
Jacobsen, B. (2006). The life crisis in an existential perspective: Can trauma and crisis be seen as an aid in personal development?Existential Analysis, 17, 39–53.
Jameson, F., & Hardt, M. (2000). The Jameson reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.