“What does it all mean?” Understanding existential crisis (and what can help)

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Nov 23, 2022

“What does it all mean?” Understanding existential crisis (and what can help)

If you’re feeling anxious, low and questioning what the point of life is, you could be having an existential crisis

There are certain things that happen in life that make us question the meaning of it all. The death of a loved one, illness, the breakdown of a relationship or other life transitions. For many, the pandemic and the general state of the world have left us reeling in uncertainty and angst.

It can be hard to know what to do with this feeling, but putting a name to it can help. Everyone is different of course, but I think some of us are having existential crises.

What is an existential crisis?

This is a term used to describe that sense of unease you feel about the meaning of life, the choices you make and your freedom. You may be asking ‘what is the meaning of life?’ or ‘what’s the point if I’m going to die one day?’.

You might feel isolated, overwhelmed and unmotivated. This feeling may have come out of the blue, but many of us experience existential crises after a major life event. Some mental health conditions like anxiety, BPD, depression and OCD can also make you more prone to existential crises, but they don’t cause them.

If this is all sounding painfully familiar, know that you’re not alone in how you feel and that there are tools to help you break free.

Questioning the meaning of life and thinking about ending life are different entities. Learn more about passive suicidal ideation and suicidal thoughts, and where to get help.

What can help?

First of all, it can be helpful to recognise that an existential crisis may not be a wholly bad thing. It could give you the nudge you need to reassess what makes you happy in life and how you can find a sense of fulfilment.

When we’re in the midst of existential thinking, we’re zoomed way out. We’re thinking about the big picture and some big topics, so it’s no surprise that we get overwhelmed. Thinking in this way isn’t necessarily bad, but if it’s causing you anxiety, it could help to zoom back in.

Try to narrow your vision to your life and what you find enjoyable and meaningful. Gratitude journaling can be a helpful way to keep track of what makes you smile and what you find personally fulfilling. Connecting with loved ones can also help to lift any feelings of isolation and bring you back to the here and now.

Speaking of the here and now, mindfulness could also be a tool to try. Helping you ground yourself in the present moment, mindfulness encourages us to simply ‘be’, which could be exactly what you need.

What is existential therapy?

If you’re looking to go deeper, you might want to work with a therapist who draws on existentialism in their work. Existential therapy is an approach that gives you the space to really explore your values, your assumptions about the world and any ideals you may hold.

In this video, counsellor Clive Stone (Registered MBACP Accredited) explains more about the approach.

Your therapist can help you understand why you feel the way you do, likely by exploring what psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom notes as givens (or ‘ultimate concerns’):

  • freedom and responsibility
  • existential isolation
  • meaninglessness
  • death

These are considered the cornerstone of existential therapy, and exploring which ones you’re coming up against can help you make sense of things. The ultimate aim of existential therapy is to help you embrace the freedom of choice we have as humans, rather than fearing it. It can help you take ownership of your life, take responsibility and live in the present.

However you go about it, know that we’re all in this together.

If you are interested in working with an existential therapist, you can visit Counselling Directory.

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