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What is an existential crisis? Examples, causes, how to cope

By Elle Warren

Jul 2, 20249 minute read

Reviewed byApril Kilduff, MA, LCPC

If you’ve ever experienced something you would describe as an existential crisis, you know that it can be a difficult and disorienting experience. It can make you wonder, What is my purpose? What does life really mean? Am I making the right choices in my life? 

These questions can also be a positive spark that leads you to take action. You might realize you aren’t making choices that align with your values and what you want from your life. Other times, you might find you’re just experiencing worry or anxiety about, for example, the passing of time, mortality, or the fear of regret, and that there’s really nothing you can do about it.

Existential crises are a natural human experience, but keep reading to know when it’s time to seek professional help, when a mental health condition might be involved, and what help is available, no matter what you’re going through. 

What is an existential crisis?

Any existential crisis typically involves significant reflection on your life, your identity, or your purpose. It might be focused on your career, your family life, or your passions, for example. An existential crisis is not a diagnostic term, but rather a general phrase used to describe a broad range of experiences with a variety of causes. 

Tracie Zinman-Ibrahim, LMFT, CST, explains: “What can happen is we get sort of an inner conflict where we worry, ‘Oh no, what’s the meaning of life? What is the purpose?’ We get confused. We’re not sure what to do. We get feelings of unease from not being able to figure out what the choices are, and how to navigate the choices.”

What can happen is we get sort of an inner conflict where we worry, ‘Oh no, what’s the meaning of life? What is the purpose?’ We get confused. We’re not sure what to do.

For a firsthand account of an existential crisis, here’s how one Reddit user describes theirs:

“When I get in bed at night, with no distractions at all and dead silence, I get flooded with existential thoughts. I think about my family and myself creeping closer to death every day. I think about my old friends having great lives meanwhile I’m just nobody… I think about the last few years and how I’ve wasted them doing nothing for my future. And so many larger questions, especially about the universe and my insignificance.” – Reddit user WraithSpire

What can cause an existential crisis?

There is no single cause of an existential crisis, but there are certainly common triggers. One of them is the stage of life you’re in. Existential anxiety and crises often occur in the late teens to early twenties, as you transition to adulthood and are faced with big choices about what you want your future to look like (known as the “sophomore crisis”); your mid-late twenties, as you’ve made some choices but still face many more; middle age, as you perhaps become more stable in your career, your children grow up or leave home, and your parents age, for example; and late life, as you more seriously face your own mortality. 

“Over the last few years, I have seen an increase in existential [crises],” says Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT. She explains that this increase could be related to things like the COVID-19 pandemic, international wars, climate change, and other major contemporary stressors. 

Some research on existential crises argues that they may also arise from significant or weighty choices. For example, many of us are able to choose a career path, or choose who we want to spend our lives with. While that’s a good thing, it also means we want to ensure we’re making the best choices, and this can lead to anxiety, or even a sense of paralysis. 

These are some other common settings, times, or events that can trigger existential crises:

  • Losing a loved one—especially a parent, as this tends to mark a loss of innocence and increased sense of mortality 
  • Losing a job or another career shift, as you contemplate what you’re doing with your life and if you want to be doing something else
  • Moving away from friends and family, as you realize the time you have with the people you love is more finite 
  • Experiencing health problems that force you to reflect on your mortality
  • Feeling unfilled in your relationships and connections with others, as this can bring a sense of isolation and make you wonder why you don’t have more people around you
  • Getting married or divorced, as this marks a significant beginning or end that can shake up a huge portion of your life and force you to reflect
  • Having a traumatic experience, as trauma can lead to changes in perspective, and may lead you to question things you didn’t before

In addition to those various life events and circumstances, there are a few mental health conditions that can make one more prone to experiencing an existential crisis, too. These include:

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Symptoms of an existential crisis

The exact symptoms of an existential crisis, as well as how intense they are and how long they last, vary from person to person. But these are some common signs that you’re experiencing an existential crisis:

  • Consistently questioning the meaning of life. You ponder deep existential questions such as your purpose and the significance of your actions and choices.
  • Increased anxiety and uncertainty. The more you consider these big, existential concerns, the more fear and worry you feel about the future. 
  • Despair. It’s common to feel sad and depressed in the midst of an existential crisis. 
  • Feelings of emptiness and disconnection. You might feel a sense of emptiness, apathy, or detachment from the world around you, leading to feelings of isolation or disconnection from others.
  • Loss of interest and passion. Activities or hobbies that once brought joy and fulfillment may lose their appeal as you struggle to find satisfaction in daily pursuits.
  • Doubts about your identity. You may question your identity, values, and beliefs, leading to a search for a more authentic sense of self.
  • Changes in behavior. As you grapple with the inner turmoil of an existential crisis, you may experience changes in your social life, eating habits, and sleeping patterns.

Could it be Existential OCD?

There’s actually a nickname for OCD that focuses on existential anxiety and doubt: existential OCD. Because existential OCD may be easily mistaken for a typical existential crisis if you don’t know what to look for, the distinction between the two is important: while existential crises often pass on their own, OCD is a chronic condition that requires a specific, specialized type of treatment. 

“Someone with existential OCD often can’t leave these unanswerable questions alone due to a perceived need to make sense of things. And this is likely to go on for a long time and affect other areas of life if it goes untreated,” says April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, another clinician at NOCD, the leading telehealth provider for OCD.

Someone with existential OCD often can’t leave these unanswerable questions alone due to a perceived need to make sense of things.

Here’s what makes existential OCD different from a typical existential crisis:

  • OCD brings recurring, unwanted intrusive thoughts, doubts, images, or feelings that tend to feel very urgent. Sometimes, they’re also very specific. For example: What if social media is ruining the purpose of my life because I spend too much time on it? What if I wind up in the hospital tomorrow and no one comes to see me because I’m a bad friend? What if my life will never feel more meaningful than it does right this minute?
  • The need to solve intrusive thoughts, get rid of distress, and/or prevent something bad from happening leads one to engage in repetitive mental or physical compulsions. This could involve reaching out to friends or faith leaders for repeated reassurance, endlessly searching the internet for answers, or even distracting yourself from your fear and anxiety through substance use.
  • The combination of intrusive thoughts, distress, and compulsions leads the person with OCD to experience some kind of impairment—whether that’s at home, work, school, or in their general well-being. 

Consider the urgent and specific intrusive thoughts described by Brian Yamstein, who wrote about his journey through treatment for existential OCD:

“Around thirteen or so, I started getting thoughts about death and being alone that terrified me. I also had this thought at night, what if I die in the middle of the night, and they go to bury me, but I wake up under the ground? I was terrified about falling asleep…” 

Patrick McGrath, PsyD, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD, sums it up like this: “Existential concerns are common and certainly don’t need to be pathologized. But in people with OCD, these concerns become obsessive and all-consuming. It can be debilitating, but there’s also highly effective treatment.”

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The best treatment for an existential crisis

“If you are starting to get particularly distressed, and maybe even depressed and confused, it can be good to go to therapy just to get some support to help you navigate all of it,” says Zinman-Ibrahim.

The first line of therapeutic defense against your general existential crisis is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT teaches you to recognize and understand the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. You’d examine how your behaviors contribute to the thoughts and feelings involved in your existential crisis, and ultimately work with your therapist to change them. 

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is another type of behavioral therapy that could be helpful in dealing with an existential crisis. This method teaches you to accept your current reality while also recommitting to your values. This can be useful for an existential crisis, helping you focus on what is important to you and live in such a way that prioritizes those things.

Evidence-based treatment for Existential OCD

Existential OCD requires specialized treatment because what works for many other mental health conditions, such as general talk therapy, often backfires and makes OCD worse by reinforcing compulsions. The best way to treat OCD is to interrupt the cycle of obsessions and compulsions—and that’s done with Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy

ERP helps you deal with uncomfortable thoughts by sitting with triggers that provoke them, and then resisting your urge to engage in compulsions for temporary relief. You and your therapist would begin slowly—for example, you might look at a photo of a cemetery, something that reminds you of mortality. Over time, your brain learns that you can tolerate the doubts and uncertainties that arise, and you don’t need compulsions to stay safe. 

Whether you’re experiencing existential OCD or not, there is immense freedom in getting the help you need. Remember, this won’t last forever—even if your existential fears try to tell you it will.

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