What Is An Existential Crisis?

What Is An Existential Crisis?

Existential Crisis: Most people experience anxiety, depression, and stress at some point in their lives. For many, these emotions are short-term and don’t interfere too much with their quality of life.

But for others, negative emotions can lead to deep despair, causing them to question their place in life. This is known as an existential crisis.

The idea of an existential crisis has been studied by psychologists and psychiatrists such as Kazimierz Dabrowski and Irvin D. Yalom for decades, starting as early as 1929.

Yet even with the abundance of old and new research on the topic, you might be unfamiliar with this term, or not understand how it differs from normal anxiety and depression.

What Is An Existential Crisis

Here’s what you need to know about an existential crisis, as well as how to overcome this turning point.

Existential Crisis Definition

When someone is experiencing an existential crisis, they have come to the point where they are questioning their purpose in life and the real meaning of life. We all want to feel like our life has meaning and when we start to ask the big questions about our purpose in life – existential depression is often the result.

Well-known comedians and amateur laugh-masters alike often poke fun at an existential crisis. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Humor can be one way to deal with existential despair when nothing else works. Existential fear is such a common experience, laughing about it with others can bring us together in a positive way.

Laughter offers relief, but it’s usually only temporary comfort. Eventually, you may want to find a more helpful answer to your existential question. So, how do you deal with your dilemma in a more effective and meaningful way? The first step is to understand what existential crisis means.

Psychologists define an existential crisis as a turning point where we begin to more deeply question our meaning and purpose in life. It’s a moment when you feel the need to find meaning or purpose in your life and has often been referred to as the dark night of the soul.

An existential crisis can happen when you’re under any type of crisis, stress, or facing a difficult decision. It can also happen at a quiet time when life seems pointless, or you’re disconnected from others around you while you struggle with understanding your own purpose in life.

There are plenty of different reasons why someone might have an existential crisis and begin suffering from existential depression. You might be at a point in your life where something needs to shift and change. Our modern world changes constantly, and so do you. You may reexamine the existential givens at any time as your way of being in the world changes. Below we’ll explore different kinds of existential depression.

Existential Crisis Meme


You are not alone. In fact, you are in good company. Don’t view it as something that’s wrong with you. Instead, look at it as just the opposite—something that sets you apart from those who don’t (or refuse to) think deeply about life.

This quote was one of my favorite things I came across to help me realize this:

Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life. — DavidsonGifted.org¹

Congrats, I guess we’re in the gifted club! You are a deep thinker who doesn’t just focus on the superficial aspects of life. I also found this next excerpt from a blogger incredibly helpful:

Existential crisis is the breakdown of the self/ego. It’s the beginning of the realization that you might not be who you thought you were all along. This will bring into question EVERYTHING of the old self. All your motivations, desires, goals, personality, values etc. will be on the chopping block. Once you realize this, most, if not everything you valued will fall to the wayside. An existential crisis means that you are starting to find yourself, your true self. And if you follow that path to its conclusion, you’ll find that life is much simpler than what it was before, that your self is an illusion and much of what we give value to in life, has little to no meaning; certainly not in the way we thought of as before. — Ramblings of My Mind

Define Existential Crisis

You don’t get much from the first page of Google search results (at the time of this writing):

  • a BuzzFeed listicle,
  • a pretty good video from Alain de Botton’s “The School of Life” which I’ve embedded further down the post below,
  • a WikiHow article sharing 3 different ways to deal with a crisis—this is the #1 result for “how to an existential crisis,”
  • a definition from UrbanDictionary. Yeah…
  • recent news stories referencing “existential crisis” as it relates to the financial market, tech companies, and politics,
  • a slightly helpful article from Psychology Today, although the comments may be better than the article,
  • and maybe my favorite result (kidding)—“Can a cat have an existential crisis?” Yep, that’s on the first page of search results at the time of writing this.

Wikipedia is usually a great place to get an initial understanding of a topic. It’s like the modern-day For Dummies book series. A safe place where you can dive in deep for hours or days at a time on any topic imaginable—only to discover new topics and then go deep on those.

Surprisingly, Wikipedia isn’t filled with a wealth of information for the “existential crisis.” Instead, it almost reads like WebMD in this case—a quick intro followed by possible causes of how you got to be in this crisis. Common triggers are things like a tragic experience, a major loss in your life, and turning a significant age (usually ages that end in “9” or “0”).

They say an existential crisis should not be confused with an identity crisis (usually related to adolescence) or a midlife crisis (usually triggered by someone’s increasing age).

Although they aren’t listed on the first couple pages of search results, Reddit and Quora have some good info and a most helpful community atmosphere:

  • Quora posts on “existential crisis”
  • Reddit: r/Existential_crisis
  • Reddit: r/ExistentialSupport
  • Reddit: r/Existentialism

So, it’s no wonder I had to Google a million different things to find any helpful information when I was going through my own existential crisis.

What Is An Existential Crisis?

I recently turned forty, and as soon as I blew out the candles, I waited for “the thing” to happen. You know what I’m talking about, right? The infamous “midlife crisis.” The mother of all existential crises. A force to be reckoned with.

Knock on wood — I seem to have gotten only a mild version of a midlife existential crisis. Well, at least so far. I do find myself asking all kinds of questions I never asked before, like “Is my life now the best it’s ever going to get?” and “What if I die never accomplishing anything better than this?”

Sometimes I find myself laughing at these questions (humor is good for us all!) and other times, I feel myself spiraling into anxiety, and I wonder if my stress is going to get the better of me one of these days.

What Is An Existential Crisis?

Your forties are not the only time you might have an existential crisis. Life is full of times you begin to ask yourself questions like “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in life?”

The term existential crisis was derived from the work of psychoanalyst and developmental theorist Erik Erikson, who referred to an existential crisis as an “identity crisis.” Questions of identity are defining characteristics of an existential crisis. During an existential crisis, you find yourself pondering who you are, whether you’ve accomplished enough, your place in the world, and the meaning of life.

What Are The Symptoms of An Existential Crisis?

In a paper about existential crises published in Behavioral Development Bulletin, researcher Mary Andrews describes existential crises as producing specific psycho-emotional symptoms, the most notable being anxiety.

“Existential crises occur during confusing and high-anxiety periods,” writes Andrews. “People who are in the midst of an existential crisis will experience high anxiety levels.”

Andrews notes that for this anxiety to dissolve, the crisis has to be “acknowledged, addressed, or resolved.” In other words, you can’t just push your existential crisis aside and hope it will work itself out on its own. You need to address the questions troubling you. If you don’t, you might sink into a period of depression or anxiety that will be harder to resolve than the existential crisis itself.

It’s important to look at an existential crisis, not as a negative thing, says Andrews, but as an opportunity to practice introspection and take some time to reevaluate your life — which is definitely a much more positive and refreshing spin than is typical when discussing existential crises!

When Do People Typically Have Existential Crises?

There is no exact age or time in your life when you are guaranteed to have an existential crisis. Everyone develops on their own timetable and experiences different life challenges. However, there are some more typical times you might experience an existential crisis, according to Andrews. She defines three typical existential crisis periods: the sophomore crisis, the adult existential crisis, and the later existential crisis.

The sophomore crisis usually takes place sometime in your teens or early 20s, as you transition into adulthood. It’s defined by questions of what career path you should choose, what it takes to form a successful romantic relationship, and general questions about self-image and identity. It can cause feelings of despair and emotional uproar, especially if the sufferer finds themselves unable to resolve these questions.

The adult existential crisis generally occurs in your late 20s and is similar to the sophomore existential crisis in that you are still wrestling with questions of career, relationships, and identity. Now, you may be facing more complex questions, like whether or not you want to have kids, get married, have a religious affiliation. You may question your sexuality, your place in the world, and where you fall on the moral/ethical/political scale.

Then, of course, is the later existential crisis. This happens in the second half of your adult life, after your career path is chosen, and you are likely to settle down with a romantic partner. You will still find yourself questioning career and relationships, but with a newfound awareness of your mortality. You’ll ask yourself questions about whether this career or relationship is actually the legacy you want to leave behind. You’ll wrestle with mistakes you’ve made in the past, and wonder if you are running out of time to make them right.