Understanding Existential Crises
Photo by Teresa Jacobson, #EggistentialCrisis
It isn’t unheard of for counseling clients to report they no longer know who they are. During times of drastic change and the need for adaptations, we sometimes lose our way and find we don’t necessarily know how to take the next step, let alone get to the other side.
“Existential crises occur during confusing and high-anxiety periods, that is, times when a person is trying to resolve and find the answer to tough questions: Who am I? and What can I contribute to the world?” (Andrews, 2016). The concept of an existential crisis which is derived from the work of Erikson (1970), stems from identity crisis which “refers to a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself” (Andrews).
Because we are alive and experience personal, relational, and societal stressors that can lead to negative consequences, we are prone as human beings to have symptoms of depression, anxiety, conflict, or career difficulty that can lead to existential crises or the feeling that we no longer have our own self-identity. The work of Andrews posits that there are three versions of the existential crisis: (a) sophomore crisis which first occurs during the late teenage years; (b) adult existential crisis which begins in the mid to late 20s and continues into later adulthood if not resolved; and (c) and later existential crisis which occurs in late adulthood.
The “sophomore” existential crisis occurs when young adults struggle to find resolutions to questions of career path, successful relationships and life in general (Andrews, 2016). During an existential crisis, people can experience a great deal of anguish and anxiety. Some experience fear and panic attacks, and others may feel deeply saddened to not have answers they search for.
The “adult” existential crisis seeks resolutions to issues of identity regarding the different areas of life that are important during mid to late 20s such as career, relationships and life in general, however with more complexity than young adults often experience.
The “later” existential crisis involves those “struggling with issues involving illness, physical pain, and fear of impending death, but the later existential crisis is not specifically about resolving those issues” (Andrews, 2016). “It is about wanting to improve one’s life before events such as illness and death take over.”
Horrors in life can cause existential crisis, from trauma to loss, and everything in between. In the work of Clinical Holistic Medicine researchers have a unique view of existential problems, describing them as “gifts”.
“Generally, personal problems are difficulties in achieving what we want in life” (Ventegodt, Kandel, Neikrug, & Merrick, 2005). "Because deep inside us there is something that we desperately want –the purpose of life – we often seem to face great difficulties. Painful experience can easily make us change course. We lie about what we want and, in so doing, fail our purpose in life."
When we experience pain and suffering during life, we sometimes try to run from it and repress or deny the existence. “From this point of view, existential pain is a message to us that we are about to be healed. We are about to pick up something precious from which we once fled. We are about to rediscover something that we still need, now more than ever. In our view, existential problems are gifts. They are gifts that are painful to receive, but wise to accept.” It is certainly not easy.
Skilled clinicians can help guide people to return to living by remembering their strengths, self-esteem, self-confidence, and trust in themselves to live congruently to core values. This rebirth can include the search for more meaning, which aids the entire process and all but seals the healing.
Counselors meet clients “soul to soul”. When working with clients in a holistic manner we are able to “take them by the hand go guide through the old pain and loss in order for them to come back to life” (Ventegodt et al., 2005).
It is vital to resolve each existential crisis so we do not experience severe anxiety, existential depression, form unhealthy relationships with people, or turn to unhealthy habits. “When one works through an existential crisis, one can have a more fulfilling life and experience less anxiety on a daily basis” (Andrews, 2016).
Though each person who experiences an existential crisis is often walking through a great deal of pain to reclaim life and find more meaning; the rebirth and serenity found within the client through healing is an incredible gift to receive, and I can tell you with certainty, an honor to witness.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached through emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting www.jacobsoncounseling.org.
Andrews, M. (2016). The existential crisis. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 21(1), 104-109. Retrieved from
Erikson, E. H. (1970). Autobiographic notes on the identity crisis. Daedalus, 99(4), 730-759. Retrieved from
Ventegodt, S., Kandel, I., Neikrug, S., and Merrick, J. (2005). Clinical holistic medicine: The existential
crisis – life crisis, stress, and burnout. The Scientific World Journal, 5, 300-312. Doi 10.1100/tsw.2005.40