During an existential crisis, we experience a period of introspection when our worldview – or the inner logic of what we hold to be true – is deeply questioned. As attention shifts to understanding the deeper meaning of existence, a keen awareness of mortality can also develop, be it awareness of the loss of life or loss of self-identity or both.
Such a profound shift in a person’s mental state is generally triggered by a major life event, such as psychological trauma, separation from or death of a loved one, psychoactive drug use, or the experience of intense emotion, including positive emotions such as love.
The individual may find themselves pondering questions such as:
- What is the meaning of my life?
- What is the purpose or value of being alive?
- How can any person understand and reconcile with the true nature of their being?
- Why am I here?
Angst, personal conflict, loneliness, hopelessness, and despair often make up the bleak and difficult emotional landscape of an existential crisis. Existential depression is a term sometimes used to describe major depressive episodes that stem from an existential crisis. No psychological or medical approach is comparably better able to address an existential crisis, including the clinically significant symptoms of existential depression (Sanders, 2013).
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Existential crises are considered a developmental stage. It is a psychological process to be moved through and beyond. Notably, the underlying philosophy of existentialism takes an active person-centred view in that we each can and do define the meaning of our existence. In consequence, it may be said we each must choose to resolve the crisis of our existence.
Psychological stages of development are not fixed or predictive, as we might consider the developmental milestones of early childhood, but can result from reaching a state of awareness at any point over our lifespan. A great variety of life circumstances may lead an adult to this experience, such as redundancy, becoming a parent or adult children leaving home, or living with an ongoing health complaint.
Here is a more in-depth example of normative psychological adaptation. An employee experiencing high achievement orientation paired with low persistence may firstly become frustrated. This frustration could then trigger a search to understand why they are not successful and, in this way, the employee is led to a change in their awareness about personal responsibility at work. Enacting greater approach behaviour in the workplace (e.g., doing more tasks for longer periods) would then likely result in the experience of success, reinforcing the benefit of change and maintaining it over time. Here, the employee chose to adapt to their work environment and gained from doing so.
Psychological stages of development, including existential crises, are about our personal evolution. As with any living system, the mind may be driven to evolve when presented with threat. When environmental and internal feedback indicates threat, in which ways of being and coping have become dysfunctional, then the system is challenged to revise its norms and to align with more meaningful goals, values, behaviours, and connections. Understandably, to the mind this process of adaptation can be very disorienting. Letting go of the known self may mean grief and loss; it can feel like dying.
Ego Death: A Transition
Whilst the contemplation of existential meaning can cause great suffering, insights brought about by both contemplation and suffering itself can motivate great change.
Without suffering we may see no need to move beyond our perceived immediate security and attachments. Change is a stepping stone from one experience to another. In this way, growth of self-identity can be said to arise through the very act of deconstructing self-identity.
Ego is a Latin word that translates as “I” or “myself”. It is also a synonym for personal grandiosity, an over emphasis on self-importance. Ego death is, comparably, a more cryptic term. Ego death relates to the diminishing of self-importance as one relates to a greater concept or process. Ego death may be considered an aim of certain religious practices linked to enlightenment. For example meditation, pilgrimage, contemplating a Boddhisattva or a Zen koan (Buddhism), and yoga.
Ego death is not about dying a physical death and not necessarily about the loss of self-identity either, but a mental transition through which the illusory nature of self is revealed. In this way we can emerge into a comparably evolved state of being.
A Catalyst for Change
Understandably, an existential crisis can result in a wide spectrum of changes to a person’s view of self and their way of being. Such changes may affect a person’s work, social, or home life. How a person chooses to manages these changes is as individual as their personality or their lifestyle, with no two people walking the same journey.
Whilst there is no single best therapy to manage an existential crisis, a tailored plan of psychological services may be the support needed for this sometimes devastating and difficult transition.
Author: Dr Amanda White, PhD, B Psych (Hons), B Beh Sc, DipH, MAPS.
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