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Existential Crisis

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What are the signs and causes of an existential crisis?

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Understanding the Signs and Causes of an Existential Crisis
by: Andreas Medina

An existential crisis can be a profoundly disorienting experience, often characterized by deep questioning of life's meaning, purpose, and value. In answering your question, I will try and help you understand the signs and causes of this phenomenon.

Signs of an Existential Crisis

1. Intense Anxiety and Depression:

Individuals experiencing an existential crisis often feel overwhelming anxiety and depression. This is due to their constant questioning of life's purpose and the meaning of their existence.

Studies have shown that existential crises are frequently accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and despair, which can lead to clinical depression (Yalom, 1980).

2. Persistent Feelings of Emptiness:

A sense of emptiness or void is common, where life seems devoid of meaning or fulfillment. This can manifest as a feeling of detachment from everyday activities and relationships.

3. Questioning Life’s Meaning and Purpose:

A hallmark of an existential crisis is relentless questioning about the meaning and purpose of life. Individuals may ponder their own existence, their role in the world, and the significance of their actions.

Viktor Frankl, in his seminal work "Man's Search for Meaning," discusses how the quest for meaning is a fundamental aspect of human life and how its absence can lead to existential despair (Frankl, 1946).

4. Disillusionment with Life or Beliefs:

Individuals may feel disillusioned with previously held beliefs, values, or goals. This disillusionment can extend to career choices, relationships, religious beliefs, and personal achievements.

5. Fear of Death:

An existential crisis often brings about an acute awareness of mortality. This fear of death can lead to existential anxiety, as individuals grapple with the transient nature of life (Heidegger, 1927).

Causes of an Existential Crisis

1. Major Life Transitions:

Significant life changes such as career shifts, divorce, the death of a loved one, or entering a new life stage (e.g., midlife) can trigger an existential crisis. These transitions often force individuals to reassess their life’s meaning and direction.

Research indicates that midlife is a particularly common period for existential crises, often referred to as a "midlife crisis" (Levinson, 1978).

2. Traumatic Experiences:

Traumatic events, such as accidents, natural disasters, or violence, can lead to existential questioning. The shock and unpredictability of such events can disrupt an individual's sense of security and purpose.

3. Loss of Belief or Faith:

Losing faith in religious or spiritual beliefs can precipitate an existential crisis. The collapse of a belief system can leave individuals feeling lost and searching for new sources of meaning (Fowler, 1981).

4. Isolation and Loneliness:

Prolonged feelings of isolation or loneliness can contribute to an existential crisis. Humans are inherently social beings, and a lack of meaningful connections can lead to profound existential questioning.

5. Philosophical Reflection:

Engaging deeply with philosophical or existential questions can itself be a cause. Individuals who spend considerable time contemplating the nature of existence, free will, and the universe may find themselves in an existential crisis.

Coping with an Existential Crisis

Understanding the signs and causes is the first step towards addressing an existential crisis. Here are some strategies that can help:

1. Seek Meaning Through Action:

Engage in activities that provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Volunteering, pursuing passions, or helping others can offer new perspectives on life's meaning.

2. Therapy and Counseling:

Professional help from a therapist or counselor, particularly those trained in existential therapy, can provide support and guidance. They can help individuals explore their feelings and develop coping strategies (May, 1983).

3. Philosophical and Spiritual Exploration:

Reading philosophical or spiritual texts can offer insights and comfort. Engaging with different belief systems can help individuals find new sources of meaning.

4. Building Relationships:

Strengthening social connections and building meaningful relationships can alleviate feelings of isolation and provide a sense of belonging and purpose.

5. Mindfulness and Meditation:

Practices like mindfulness and meditation can help individuals stay present and reduce anxiety about the future. These practices can foster a sense of inner peace and clarity.

To reiterate, an existential crisis is a complex and deeply personal experience marked by intense questioning of life's meaning and purpose. Recognizing the signs and understanding the causes can help individuals navigate through this challenging period and find new sources of meaning and fulfillment.


Frankl, V. E. (1946). Man's Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.

Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. Harper & Row.

Heidegger, M. (1927). Being and Time. Harper & Row.

Levinson, D. J. (1978). The Seasons of a Man's Life. Knopf.

May, R. (1983). The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology. W. W. Norton & Company.

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. Basic Books.

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