A Guide to Understanding Existential Crisis and How it Can be Resolved

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P
August 12, 2018

The term existential crisis can be used flippantly and we may experience different understandings of the term.  Having a clear purpose is proven to be vital to living a meaningful and healthy life, as we have a need to connect to something larger than ourselves. When we are not in touch with this, feelings of hopelessness, meaninglessness, anxiety, and depression can come to the forefront.  The crisis involves despair and questioning the meaning of life. For some this is can serve as a key turning point when they face their fears of death and seek to find broader meaning and purpose.  While this search is not a cure-all for clinical mental health symptoms, the good news is that having a purpose is not a fixed trait. We can develop and enhance purpose. Actuating our sense of purpose can increase hope and decrease feelings of despair.

man thinking

Viktor Frankl is a psychiatrist who addressed and studied this issue of existential fear after spending time in a concentration camp. He was the only survivor in his family and subsequently dedicated his life to studying “Man’s Search for Meaning.”  He observes that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  He presents the construct that we have the freedom to decide how we respond to circumstances we are faced with.  This freedom provides us the choice to find meaning in all situations.

How can a sense of purpose and meaning be cultivated? It requires time, pause, and introspection. In our busy and hurried lives, we infrequently take the time to reflect and clarify the lives we want to lead.

Finding your purpose is an empowering process and a way of being rather than an event.  Very few people actually have a moment of enlightenment when the answers are magically revealed. it is more of a journey than an endpoint to pursue. it is not something you find; rather, it’s something you create.

Addressing existential fear often involves facing and accepting the reality of death. There is a psychological growth that can occur when identifying, processing, and discussing these feelings.  Discuss with a trusted friend or mental health professional to move toward clarity.

Get outside yourself. Research supports the role of altruism and serving others as a primary source of meaning and purpose in people’s lives. Contributing to the world in a positive way is an energizing source.

Connect with others. Seeking purpose cannot occur in isolation. Interpersonal exchange and investing in relationships will provide good returns in building meaning and purpose.

Cognitive reframing. Shift your attitude and perception toward life. Actively foster the message that your life is meaningful and you can make a difference. Scientific research supports that enhancing your sense of purpose can help us restructure difficult issues into opportunities for growth.

Keep it simple. Ditch the grandiosity of “saving the world” and consider a simple act.  Think of who you can impact today.

In the end, people want to know their lives matter and they can make a difference in the world. What does the world need from you?

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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