Existential crisis, derived from existentialism, is a stage of development at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose or value; whether their parents, teachers, and loved ones truly act in their best interest; whether the values they have been taught have any merit; and whether their religious upbringing may or may not be founded in reality.


An existential crisis may result from:

  • The sense of being alone and isolated in the world;
  • A new found grasp or appreciation of one's mortality;
  • Believing that one's life has no purpose or external meaning;
  • Awareness of one's freedom and the consequences of accepting or rejecting that freedom;

Existential crisis is often provoked by a significant event in the person's life — marriage, separation, major loss, the death of a loved one; a life-threatening experience; psycho-active drug use; adult children leaving home; reaching a personally-significant age (turning 30, turning 40, etc.), etc. Usually, it provokes the sufferer's introspection about personal mortality, thus revealing the psychological repression of said awareness.

Existential crisis may resemble anomie (a personal condition resulting from a lack of norms) or a midlife crisis. Sometimes, an existential crisis stems from a person's new perception of life and existence.

When a person faces the paradox of believing his or her life important, whilst perceiving that human existence is meaningless and without purpose, cognitive dissonance occurs, overcoming many innate psychological and cultural defense mechanisms.

Analogously, existentialism posits that a person can and does define the meaning and purpose of his or her life, hence must choose to resolve the crisis of existence.

Handling existential crises

There is no one given therapeutic method in modern psychology known to coerce a person out of existential despair (the issue is seldom, if at all, addressed from a medical standpoint).

Peter Wessel Zapffe, a Norwegian philosopher provided, in his work The Last Messiah, a four-fold route that he believed all self-conscious beings use in order to cope with the inherent indifference and absurdity of existence, made up of Isolation, Anchoring, Distraction, and Sublimation:

  • 1. Isolation is "a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling".
  • 2. Anchoring is the "fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness". The anchoring mechanism provides individuals a value or an ideal that allows them to focus their attentions in a consistent manner. Zapffe also applied the anchoring principle to society, and stated "God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future" are all examples of collective primary anchoring firmaments.
  • 3. Distraction is when "one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions". Distraction focuses all of one's energy on a task or idea to prevent the mind from turning in on itself.
  • 4. Sublimation is the refocusing of energy away from negative outlets, toward positive ones. The individual distances him / herself and looks at their existence from an aesthetic point of view. (e.g. writers, poets, painters.) Zapffe himself pointed out that his produced works were the product of sublimation.

Intense vipassana meditation will usually bring about a set of experiences, referred to as the dark night of the soul by western spiritual traditions, that resemble the typical symptoms of an existential crisis[1][2]. During the "dark night", meditators become severely discouraged with practice and life in general, although continuing meditation is the only known form of overcoming this difficult stage [1].

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Daniel Ingram (April, 2007). "Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha". Retrieved November 17, 2009. 
  2. Henk Barendregt, "Buddhist Phenomenology I & II".

Further reading

  • J. Watson, Caring Science as Sacred Science 2005. Chapter 4: "Existential Crisis in Science and Human Sciences".
  • P. Strang, Existential crisis of the dying physician. Lakartidningen, 2004. (
  • T.M. Cousineau, A. Seibring, M.T. Barnard, P-673 Making meaning of infertility: Existential crisis or personal transformation? Fertility and Sterility, 2006.

External links

simple:Existential crisis

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