What Is an Existential Crisis?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 09, 2022
4 min read

An existential crisis is a recurring pattern of thoughts regarding your identity, purpose in life, and legacy, among other things. Existential questions may appear at any point in your life and can affect your mood and overall quality of life.

An existential crisis is an umbrella term that encompasses any uneasy feelings concerning the meaning of life. These thoughts typically come down to two foundational questions: Who am I and what is my purpose in life? An existential crisis can also revolve around questions of your legacy and other aspects of your life, especially as you get older.

Existential crises can appear at many points in a person's life. Some people may never experience one of these crises, but there's a good chance that any one of these questions may arise at some point in your life:

  • Who am I?
  • What’s my purpose in life?
  • What am I using my remaining time for?
  • Am I being authentic to who I truly am?
  • Have I made the right choices in life?

An existential crisis most commonly appears during a person's teenage years and in their late twenties. However, these thoughts can also come up at other times, especially later in life when a person may begin to question their mortality and past achievements.

Are depression and anxiety the same as an existential crisis? An existential crisis is different than depression and anxiety. It refers to a pattern of thoughts that isn't recognized as a medical condition. Unlike anxiety and depression, an existential crisis usually occurs as a result of something that triggers you.

Are existential crises turning points in life? An existential crisis can lead to significant changes in a person's life regarding their identity, achievements, mindset, and other essential aspects.

Existential crises can appear at any point in your life. They are usually accompanied by significant events that make you question specific aspects of your existence. While these will be different for everyone, here are the most common events that trigger existential crises:

  • Severe, possibly life-threatening conditions such as cancer
  • Losing a job or facing adverse economic changes
  • Death of a loved one, family member, or close friend
  • General signs that you’re aging, such as your child moving away from your home
  • Highly traumatic events, like a near-death experience

Many people associate these events with negative aspects of life. However, existential crises may also appear during "happy times," like the birth of a new child or getting married. Existential questions may also arise during times of doubt, like if you're considering changing your religious beliefs.

While existential crises can affect anyone, some specific conditions can increase your risk for existential questioning. For example, people with depressive, bipolar, and obsessive-compulsive disorders are usually more prone to existential crises.

However, like most psychological events, existential crises don't always need a trigger. Existential questioning can also appear gradually, alongside certain psychological or physical symptoms.

Existential crisis symptoms can be separated into two distinct categories. There are the purely psychological symptoms, which manifest in your thoughts. These thought patterns include:

  • Constantly thinking about and being aware that you’ll inevitably die sooner or later
  • Noticing a lack of meaning in everyday life
  • Feeling left alone at all times
  • Sudden loss of identity
  • Feeling unable to change your life

Along with psychological symptoms, you may feel some physical side effects. Keep in mind, though, that these are mostly related to anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions that sometimes accompany an existential crisis. These may include:

Remember that an existential crisis will feel different for everyone. If you're in doubt about whether or not you're going through an existential crisis, make sure to check with a doctor or a licensed therapist. They will be able to diagnose you based on your symptoms and thought patterns.

Due to the intimate nature of existential crises, every person will manage it differently. However, there are a few general guidelines if you're going through an existential crisis. Here are some common existential crisis treatment options: 

Talk to people. Existential crises will often lead you to isolate yourself from people. This behavior can further increase your existential thoughts, so it's important to connect with people. Try talking with a loved one or a person in your life that you feel comfortable confiding in. Making them aware of your situation will make it easier for you to seek professional help if needed.

Change your perspective. While this is easier said than done, try to adjust your viewpoint regarding your current and past experiences in life to something more positive. If you find yourself unable to change your perspective, try to speak with a licensed therapist. A trained professional can help you change the way you perceive your life.

Meditate. Practicing meditation and mindfulness will help you stay grounded in reality and conscious of any negative thought patterns. A regular mindfulness practice will encourage you to focus on the enjoyment that everyday activities bring to your life.

Keep a journal. Experts often recommend keeping a diary when you're going through periods of existential questioning. A journal is a fantastic way to keep track of your thoughts while also freeing up your mind. Try to also write down any possible solutions to the negative thoughts you are feeling.

If you struggle to break out of your existential crisis, you may want to make an appointment with a licensed therapist. The help of a trained professional can be invaluable. Not every existential crisis is easy to get over alone.