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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Is an Existential Crisis and How Do You Overcome It?

December 22, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
December 22, 2023
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
December 22, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
December 22, 2023
18 min read

You’ve been feeling on edge for the past several weeks, but can’t exactly pinpoint what’s bothering you. You find yourself contemplating the meaning of your life, your purpose, and even your identity. What’s going on — have you completely lost it, or is this normal? 

In this post, we'll explore the concept of an existential crisis: what it is, what causes it, and most importantly, how you can overcome it. Let’s get started!

What Is an Existential Crisis?

The term existential crisis often refers to a form of inner conflict that stems from profound self-examination and the pondering of fundamental aspects of our life, identity, and purpose. It can cause us to look at our life and question our mere existence — hence the term existential. 

Going through an existential crisis can be very unsettling, as it forces us to confront questions that we don’t necessarily have answers to. In many ways, it’s like a wake-up call from our inner self, trying to get our attention and urging us to examine our life on a deeper level. It often emerges during significant life events or transitions, but it can also creep in during quieter moments of self-reflection. 

But, the most important thing to remember if we have an existential crisis — or are currently in the middle of one — is that they’re not uncommon. Everyone may experience an existential crisis at some point in their life. 

Signs and Symptoms of an Existential Crisis

Like many other crises, existential crises can be complex and convoluted. They vary from person to person and can manifest in various ways. However, there are some commonalities among people in the midst of one. Here’s a closer look at five of the most common symptoms and signs to watch out for: 

  1. Feelings of emptiness. A sense of emptiness is one of the hallmarks of an existential crisis. It almost feels like we’re staring into an abyss that we can’t fully grasp. This feeling can be deeply unsettling and accompanied by a profound dissatisfaction with our current circumstances. It can also cause us to crave deeper meaning and purpose, and yearn for something more than we’ve currently experienced in life.
  2. Anxiety and dread. Another major sign that we’re knee-deep in an existential crisis is being consumed by worry and anxiety. We may even find ourselves experiencing existential dread — a pervasive anxiety about our purpose, mortality, and the ultimate meaning of life itself. Continually questioning who we are and our place in the world can take a toll on our health, not just mentally, but physically, too. It may cause us to suffer from insomnia, restlessness, or perpetual unease. 
  3. Questioning life choices. An existential crisis often triggers a reevaluation of our life choices, both major and minor. We may question the decisions we’ve made thus far, including our career, relationships, and even our values. We’re examining your life under a magnifying glass, searching for the alignment between our choices and true self. This introspection can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can lead to valuable insights and personal growth. On the other hand, it may bring to light decisions that don't resonate with our authentic self, creating inner turmoil and doubt.
  4. Desire for meaning. Another indication we’re having an existential crisis is the deep-seated desire for meaning and purpose. We may find ourselves yearning to uncover the grander narrative of our life, to answer profound questions like, "What is the point of it all?" and "What am I meant to do?" This desire is a testament to our innate human curiosity and longing for significance. This quest for meaning can lead us on a journey of self-discovery, as we seek to align our actions and choices with our core values and aspirations.
  5. Disconnection from self. During an existential crisis, we may feel a profound disconnection from our true self. It's as if we’ve been living a life that doesn't align with our core values, beliefs, or aspirations. This disconnect can manifest as a sense of alienation, leaving us feeling estranged from our own identity. This inner turmoil can be deeply unsettling, prompting us to question who we’ve become and whether we’ve been living inauthentically. The disconnection from self serves as a catalyst for self-reflection and, ultimately, transformation.

Given the intensity of emotions, some people might find themselves turning to alcohol or other substances to help them cope with an existential crisis. However, doing so only exacerbates anxiety or depression

While these signs can be distressing, it's important to recognize that an existential crisis is a natural part of personal growth. It can usher in a new season of life that helps us live authentically and purposefully. 

What Are the Root Causes of an Existential Crisis?

Existential crises don’t just come out of nowhere. They are often triggered by various factors and life events. These crises are deeply personal experiences that often emerge when people are confronted with profound questions about the nature of existence, meaning, and purpose. Here’s a closer look at four common causes:

  • Major life changes. Change is never easy. And it can sometimes cause us to start questioning things around us. Oftentimes, an existential crisis will emerge from a major life event, such as switching careers, losing a loved one, suffering an illness, or reaching a significant age milestone. These life transitions can serve as a catalyst for self-reflection, disrupting our usual routine and forcing us to reevaluate our priorities and values. 
  • Awareness of mortality. Nobody wants to think about the end of their life — or confront the possibility of their own death. But as we traverse down the road of life, we inevitably become more aware of our own mortality and the finite nature of human existence. This heightened awareness can be a potent trigger for existential crises. It's a realization that life is fleeting, and the time we have on this planet is finite.
  • Misalignment with values. A significant cause of existential crises is the realization that our life choices and circumstances don't align with our deeply held values and beliefs. This misalignment can be a source of inner conflict and existential doubt. For example, if we’ve been pursuing a career solely for financial gain but value creative expression and personal fulfillment more deeply, we may experience a crisis of purpose.
  • Societal expectations. Society often imposes certain expectations on individuals, prescribing what constitutes a successful and fulfilling life. These expectations can include pursuing a particular career path, adhering to a specific lifestyle, or achieving certain milestones by a certain age. Questioning these societal norms and expectations can trigger existential doubts.

Keep in mind that, while these are some of the most common triggers for an existential crisis, triggers can vary from person to person depending on our life, circumstances, and unique situation.

7 Tips for Overcoming an Existential Crisis

There’s no doubt about it: existential crises can be challenging and uncomfortable. But we don’t have to let them overwhelm us. We can learn how to navigate an existential crisis in a healthy way so that we emerge stronger and wiser. With that in mind, here are seven practical steps to overcome an existential crisis: 

  1. Engage in self-reflection. A big part of an existential crisis is engaging in self-reflection. This can be helpful for exploring our thoughts, emotions, and observations. Try using a journal to help you process what you’re experiencing. Consider asking yourself questions such as, “What matters most to me?" and, "What are my long-term goals and dreams?” Writing these down can help us gain clarity and direction. 
  2. Shift your perspective. Change is often scary to us, but it doesn’t have to be. We also can’t avoid change, so we’re better off embracing it rather than resisting it. Try to view change as an opportunity for personal growth. Ask yourself what you can learn from what you’re experiencing and the challenges you’re facing. This can be a powerful mindset shift, but it requires a willingness to embrace change. As the saying goes, the more we resist, the more it persists. 
  3. Seek support. One of the worst things we can do when experiencing an existential crisis is to isolate ourselves. We’re meant for connection — particularly when we’re going through a hard time. Try reaching out to friends and loved ones to share your thoughts and feelings. We can also consider joining social or community groups that align with your interests and values. Connecting with like-minded individuals can provide a sense of belonging and shared purpose, which can be comforting during periods of distress. 
  4. Find joy in small moments. Existential crises can be heavy and overwhelming. As such, we might have a harder time looking on the bright side. But it’s important to find joy in the little things. Try being fully engaged in your daily experiences, whether you’re savoring a cup of tea, taking a leisurely walk, or appreciating the beauty of nature. Plus, taking a moment to express gratitude and appreciation can boost our level of happiness and well-being. 
  5. Set realistic goals. During an existential crisis, it's natural to question your life goals and aspirations. Take time to reevaluate your goals in light of your newfound insights and values. What goals align with your authentic self? Once you’ve identified them, try breaking them into actionable steps. For example, if your goal is to improve your physical fitness, specific objectives might include running a certain distance, lifting a specific weight, or achieving a particular level of health.
  6. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation techniques can help us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings without judgment. Regular mindfulness practice can enhance our ability to stay present and find meaning in everyday experiences. A key aspect of mindfulness is observation without judgment. This means refraining from criticizing or analyzing our thoughts and emotions. Instead, acknowledge and accept them as you would a dear friend. 
  7. Seek professional help. Finally, sometimes we need extra help to get through a crisis — and there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, reaching out for help is a sign of great strength, not weakness. Consider seeking the guidance of a trained therapist or counselor. They can provide valuable insights into the root causes of our existential crisis and help us develop coping strategies, tools, and techniques for managing difficult emotions.

Taken together, these steps can help us navigate an existential crisis in a healthy, constructive manner. Existential crises can be greatly distressing, but with time, we can come out the other side! It’s possible we may even look back one day and be grateful for the personal growth and transformation it initiated. 

The Bottom Line

While existential crises can be unsettling, they also offer an opportunity for profound personal growth and transformation. They are moments when you question the status quo and embark on a journey to find deeper meaning and purpose in your life. By recognizing the triggers and causes of these crises, you can navigate them with greater awareness and emerge from the experience with a clearer sense of self and purpose. Remember, it's okay to question and explore; it's all part of the journey toward a more authentic and fulfilling existence.

If you’re turning to alcohol to help manage uncomfortable feelings, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits.

Summary FAQs

1. What is an existential crisis?

An existential crisis is a period of intense self-examination and questioning about the nature of existence, meaning in life, and one's purpose. It often involves a deep sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction.

2. What are the typical symptoms of an existential crisis?

Symptoms may include a sense of emptiness, anxiety, questioning life choices, longing for meaning, disconnection from self, existential angst, loss of interest, and social withdrawal.

3. What are the common triggers of an existential crisis?

Common triggers include major life transitions (career changes, loss of loved ones, milestones), awareness of mortality, misalignment with personal values, and questioning societal expectations.

4. How can I cope with an existential crisis?

Coping strategies include self-reflection and journaling, embracing change, connecting with others, finding meaning in small moments, setting new goals, practicing mindfulness and seeking professional help (therapy or counseling).

5. Is seeking professional help recommended during an existential crisis?

Yes, seeking support from mental health professionals is often beneficial. Therapy can provide valuable insights, coping strategies, and a safe space to explore existential questions.

6. Can an existential crisis lead to positive changes in one's life?

Yes, an existential crisis can be a catalyst for personal growth and transformation. It often prompts individuals to realign their lives with their values, find greater authenticity, and discover a more meaningful path forward.

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