Understanding Existential Crises

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“Life begins on the other side of despair.” – Jean-Paul Sartre[1]

Experiencing crisis goes hand in hand with being human. While the nature of our crises has changed as humanity has progressed both societally and technologically, our neurological and biological responses have remained the same. Psychologists and philosophers have long been interested in crises in terms of how we react, what triggers them, and why certain people respond differently from others.

An existential crisis is defined as, “a psychological episode in which a person questions the meaning of their life and of existence itself.” According to prominent psychologist and neuroscientist, Mary Andrews, these occur during, “confusing and high-anxiety periods,” whereas Erikson defined it in 1970 as an “identity crisis. [2]” This blog entry explores the different types of existential crisis and how we can overcome them.

Many people are currently in crisis. These are particularly uncertain times because we are living in the midst of  political upheaval against the backdrop of a global pandemic. Times like this make many of us question our very existence on this planet.

Over the past few weeks, the chaotic global situation has left many people wondering what their role on Earth is. People’s livelihoods have been threatened; many are still worried about their health; and we are living in an increasingly divided society. According to the seminal psychiatrist, Irvin D. Yalom, feelings of isolation can lead to existential crisis[3]. In this context, emotional isolation can be as detrimental as physical..

Each individual’s particular state of mind informs the kind of existential crisis that they may experience. One sort of existential crisis is referred to as the “sophomore crisis,” which is likely to occur during the late teenage years or in early adulthood and concerns identity issues and the future. The “adult” version of this crisis usually begins in the mid to late 20s and centers on subjects similar to the “sophomore crisis” with additional concerns about mortality, legacy, and achievement[4].

It is completely normal to experience these feelings, and they can serve as a source of growth, inspire self-reflection, or be the catalyst for much-needed change in direction[5]. However, these crises can also exist on a more significant, far-reaching level when they  mirror societal problems, such as wage inequality, and affect large numbers of people[6].

It is crucial to resolve existential crises both on an individual and a societal level. If left unresolved, personal outcomes can include existential depression, other forms of depression, and bad relationships. On a larger, societal scale, they can result in a high divorce rate and large numbers of people not contributing to society[7].

No crisis should go unaddressed. If you are spending an inordinate amount of time trying to answer the unanswerable or solve impossible problems, it may end in despair. After all, you’ve set yourself an impossible task.

In trying times, everyone’s faith in their life purpose can be tested because, in crisis, we believe that our reaction to this particular situation will  define the rest of our lives. The truth is that your purpose is whatever you choose it to be in that second – it is a dynamic concept rather than an unwavering and permanent course of action.

While we may understand this idea on an intellectual level, often there is a disparity between our logical and emotional selves. If you find yourself experiencing an existential crisis, there are specific steps you can take. Research from the University of Calgary suggests practicing mindfulness, or “dealing with the stressors of the adversity and trauma of crisis situations.”[8] Mindfulness focuses on being in the present moment and focusing solely on what is going on around you rather than projecting into the future. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, including counting your breathing and listening to guided meditations. There are thousands of resources available online that account for individual tastes and situations.

Connecting with others is also an essential aspect of avoiding existential crises because humans are hard-wired to be social creatures and find meaning through social interaction. Socializing can also distract us from obsessively ruminating on our purpose in the world. In the age of technology, connecting with others is just a video call away.

If you are spending too much time thinking about greater meaning to the extent that it is affecting your ability to function in the world, seek professional help. Every single thought and feeling warrants attention, and often a professional may help you look at your current situation from a new, more productive perspective. It is not your job to solve the mysteries of the universe. It is meaningful enough to take care of your mental health and be the best person you can be.

To learn more about the services offered by Heather R. Hayes & Associates and/or to become trained as a trauma-informed transporter, please call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com.


[1] “Jean-Paul Sartre”. Oxford Reference, 2021, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191826719.001.0001/q-oro-ed4-00009124.

[2] Andrews, Mary. “The Existential Crisis.”. Behavioral Development Bulletin, vol 21, no. 1, 2016, pp. 104-109. American Psychological Association (APA), doi:10.1037/bdb0000014. Accessed 11 Jan 2021.

[3] Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. United States of America: Basic Books.

[4] Andrews, Mary. “The Existential Crisis.”. Behavioral Development Bulletin, vol 21, no. 1, 2016, pp. 104-109. American Psychological Association (APA), doi:10.1037/bdb0000014. Accessed 11 Jan 2021.

[5] Park, Crystal L. Medical Illness And Positive Life Change. American Psychological Association, 2009.

[6] Jameson, F., & Hardt, M. (2000). The Jameson reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

[7] Andrews, Mary. “The Existential Crisis.”. Behavioral Development Bulletin, vol 21, no. 1, 2016, pp. 104-109. American Psychological Association (APA), doi:10.1037/bdb0000014. Accessed 11 Jan 2021.

[8] BEARANCE, DEB. “Mindfulness in Moments of Crisis.” The Journal of Educational Thought (JET) / Revue De La Pensée Éducative, vol. 47, no. 1/2, 2014, pp. 60–70. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24713052. Accessed 11 Jan. 2021.

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