“I’m an apple…why am I an apple?” Yes, the apple is having an existential crisis. Existential crises can be simply defined as the uneasiness that comes when we think through concepts like meaning, choice and freedom in life. Whether it is existential dread or existential anxiety, the main concern is the way the person feels as if life is inherently pointless and that their own existence has no point whatsoever. “People can have an existential crisis when they start to wonder what life means, and what their purpose or the purpose to life as a whole is,” explains Katie Leikam, a licensed therapist.
The hard times can’t always be defined as the triggers for existential crises; even movies, literature and songs put their words into our worlds thus triggering existential angst. When Julia Stamman, a Licensed Professional Counselor, interviewed people with existential dread the language they used more or less revolved around the theme “insignificance”. “Anytime I feel directionless.”, “Where you have a ‘profound’ realization that your place and purpose in the universe is completely insignificant and is so much that affecting change or influence on anything you care about deeply is virtually impossible and a waste of time.”, “Philosophical transition(s) in my life.” is supposedly how they described their crisis.
There can be various causes as to why and how a person falls into this dry land, to name a few:
- guilt about something;
- losing a loved one in death, or facing the reality of one’s own death;
- feeling socially unfulfilled;
- dissatisfaction with self; history of bottled up emotions.
An existential crisis can also occur after major life events, such as:
- career or job change;
- entering a significant age category, such as 40, 50, or 65;
- experiencing a tragic or traumatic experience; marriage or divorce.
Existential vacuum can even be called the same but vacuum can also be referred to as the sense of utter despair and the emptiness that is felt after an existential crisis. We can also say that the question “why” when it gets bigger, trouble comes up. The spiral of questions can be so uncomfortable because it forces us to think bigger than ourselves, essentially.
Our brains are completely conscious only within a tenth of a second at any given time. So our daily attention span is the very present moment. When someone or something begins to expand that attention to lifetimes, billions of years, the creation of the universe, etc. something doesn’t compute. When we imagine what’s beyond our lifetimes, into the distant future or past, things become out of our control. We don’t get to experience those realities and it is uncomfortable.
Frankl is an existentialist who survived the concentration camp in World War II. So his credibility about knowing the importance of meaning in a dire situation is famously high. He describes patients who struggled with a condition called the existential vacuum or inner void. Creating meaning out of terrible circumstances is something humans are capable of. When Stamman interviewed about the people’s existential vacuum the answers she got included descriptions like ‘Usually it’s about larger questions, headier questions that can’t really be tied up neatly with a yes or no answer kind of thing. It’s never a consistent kind of dread; it will usually just be an idea that persists, almost like an itch you can’t scratch’.
During an existential crisis, a person may experience a variety of symptoms, including Anxiety; Depression; Feeling overwhelmed; Isolation from friends and loved ones; Lack of motivation and energy; Loneliness; Obsessive worry. Delving deeper, there are types of crisis according to their cause. They are:
- ·Fear and Responsibility- If the responsibility feels too great, they may retreat into ways of behaving that shield us from this feeling of anxiety
- Meaning of Life– “What is the point of living?” and as they move through transitions in their life and lose the security of a familiar context and structure, they might question the point of life, if in the end, the result is that they die.
- Authenticity- An existential crisis might move them toward authenticity, which may also bring anxiety. They have thoughts about the fleetingness of their existence and how they are living it.
- Major life event/ phase of life- Many people experience an existential crisis when they transition into a new phase of life, such as from childhood to adulthood or from adulthood into senior living.
- Death and illness- Losing a partner, parent, sibling, child, or other loved one often forces people to face their own mortality and question the meaning of their own life. Similarly, if you are facing a serious or life-threatening illness, you may have an existential crisis.
But existential crises can be positive too, people when asked about it answered how they were introduced to a new hobby or became even stronger after going through it. In other words, what might be helpful is sitting with the experience of the crisis itself. Allowing themselves to have a few moments to really dig into those feelings. Having an exit plan might be helpful, though. The plan might include setting an allotted time or having a friend check in on them after a while. Here’s help in making an existential crisis a positive experience for you or someone you love:
- Write it down. Pull out a notebook and jot down your thoughts on these questions. It’s in the answers to these questions, that you will find how to cope with an existential crisis.
- Seek support. Talking with loved ones about your existential anxiety can help you gain a different life perspective and remind you of the positive impact you’ve had on their lives.
- Try meditation and treatment. Meditation can help you replace negative thoughts and help prevent anxiety and obsessive worry linked to an existential crisis. Treatments usually involve Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is not the cure but can help.
In the end let’s remember the words of the philosopher, journalist, and author Albert Camus,
“If you can stop trying to live for the end, or the “goal,”
and start living for the act of “being” itself, then your life becomes about living it fully,
choosing integrity, and being passionate.”
– Aishwarya Raghavan