What Is An Existential Crisis? How To Deal With Moments Of Deep Despair & Anxiety

Understanding your feelings and values can help you cope during existential crises.

What Is An Existential Crisis? How To Deal With Moments Of Deep Despair & Anxiety Callie Gibson on Unsplash

I think that existential crises are fairly common in our world though not talked about as much as things like midlife crises. Typically we are moving so quickly in our very busy lives that we might miss the signs of an existential crisis until they stop us in our tracks by becoming so huge that we just can't keep going in the same way.

What is an existential crisis?

Existential crises are moments in which someone questions "whether their lives have meaning, purpose, or value."


This might happen due to our health, feelings of depression, anxiety, or overwhelm, or being disengaged and numb in our lives.

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Existential crises tend to come up for people in situations where our values or reasons for doing something no longer lineup with what we are doing. I would argue that they are the result of incongruence in our lives and not being aware of what we truly need in order to be our best selves.


Consider these examples:

  • A college student who has been told they need a college degree but they have no actual interest in the classes or direction in life that college will lead. They spend hours studying but feel depressed and struggle to retain the information they are learning.
  • A high school student who is wondering what the point is of school and learning about things like Calculus. They wonder why they are stressing all the time when the only motivator for school is to help them get a job (which will then be stressful), which is only really to help them pay bills (which also sounds stressful), and to provide for their family, (which also sounds stressful).
  • An attorney (or any profession really) who realizes that they actually don't care about making money and hate being an attorney, which makes going to work every day a real struggle because they can't answer the question, “Why?” If you are not incentivised by money and money alone, working a job you hate can be absolutely miserable and feel soul crushing.
  • A new mom who realizes that the dream of having a perfect kid might be shaken up by her child’s just diagnosed special needs.
  • A person who is experiencing depression daily and struggles to feel connected to a life they worked hard to build and genuinely love when they are not experiencing depression.
  • A parent who has just lost their child to a tragic accident despite doing all the right things to protect their child and keep them safe. They begin to wonder if God is even out there.
  • A high school senior whose entire future has been built on their athletic prowess and suffers a season, career ending injury in their sport.

The question people in these situations are getting at during their existential crises is, “Why?”

  • Why am I here?
  • Why bother?
  • Why should I care?
  • What’s the point?
  • Why did this happen to me?
  • What is the purpose of my life?
  • How do I keep going?

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Often, questions of an existential nature come up a lot in our teen years, when our brains are ripe for challenging the status quo or the “why” behind things. But they also come up for people when they feel that they have lived their whole lives for things that don't actually make sense for them or connect to their values.

Values are, at least should be in my eyes, the driving force in our lives, so helping people identify and connect with their values and reasons for being is of the utmost importance in dealing with an existential crisis. Interestingly, I find that in our world, we don't often think about values outside of religion and morality.


Often, we are too scared by the depths of despair and challenge that can happen when these crises occur that we might be more tempted to just keep going, distracting ourselves into believing we are okay despite feeling numb, sad, disconnected, distracted, unable to connect with our loved ones, or like we are on some sort of hamster wheel with no end in sight.

This fear of our darker or less enjoyable emotions leads us to avoid sitting with the feelings that come up during times of struggle.

The hard truth is that we need to feel these feelings so that we can figure out what our existential questions are that we are struggling with. And unfortunately, if we don’t know the question, it can feel impossible to find an answer that resonates with us and can lead towards healing, growth, and a sense of peace in our lives.

I suggest that people experiencing depths of despair and anxiety try to allow themselves to feel what they are feeling enough so that they can seek the questions they need to answer in their lives.


Once we have the question, we can seek the answers as well.

While this is not an easy or comfortable process, and is certainly not a quick one with a quick fix solution, it is important and life changing once you come out on the other side.

RELATED: What Is An Existential Crisis, And How Do You Survive One?


Dr. Erica Wollerman is a licensed clinical psychologist with a passion for helping people accomplish their goals and live healthy, happy lives. For more information on how she can help you overcome your anxiety, visit her website.