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Existential Crisis: Grappling With the 'Monster' Within

Tips for navigating an existential crisis.

 Simon Matzinger/Pexels
Source: Simon Matzinger/Pexels

Human rejection, a sense of worthlessness, and an introspective struggle with the central questions—Who am I? Why was I created? What is the meaning of life?—drove Frankenstein’s monster on a murderous rampage. Though the monster may simply be a work of fiction, similar concerns foment increasing mental health crises in this country, crises that have no physiological basis but can lead to hopelessness, depression, and, particularly among the young, suicide.

American psychiatrist Irvin Yalom refers to this angst as “existential anxiety” or “existential crisis.” In his book Existential Psychotherapy, he outlines four major life concerns—fear of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness—that can create anxiousness, especially among seriously ill patients, the aged, and intellectually gifted children and adults who look beyond the concrete and grapple with questions for which there are oftentimes no answers.

Death, of course, is inevitable, and if inevitable, why are we here, a person might muse. Freedom, as defined by Yalom and colleagues, is the absence of structure, making it the individual’s responsibility to create the necessary rules and guidelines by which to live. An existence that has a definitive termination without structure can promote feelings of isolation from others—an inability and lack of desire to be socially close—and a strong sense of meaninglessness. What is the point of being alive?

Is Life Just About Working and Dying?

Experts say an existential crisis occurs when questions of death and life’s meaning become so overwhelming that they prompt a personal conflict, resulting in stress and anxiety. Indeed, in gifted children and adolescents, existential crises can be common. That is because gifted children have unique cognitive, social, and emotional traits that make them “deep thinkers” with an acute sensitivity to issues in the world around them. They demonstrate strong reasoning skills, question their own roles in society and the behavior of others, are frightened by the seemingly limitless and divergent life choices, have a sense they are “different,” and tend to withdraw from normal social interactions.

Of course, the larger questions about life—and death—have no answers, and those who find themselves in an existential crisis must determine ways of getting past it. Ultimately, most do. But, among some, this existential questioning not only can lead to dark despair and depression but also foster suicidal ideation. Statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just a couple of years ago showed the suicide rate up about 25 percent since 1999, with suicide being the second leading cause of death among college students.

Well-known psychologist, researcher, and author Clay Routledge blames part of the increase in suicides on a reflective sense of meaninglessness, fears of the uncertainty of life, and a growing realization that we all must age and eventually die. “Our capacity to reflect on ourselves, to think about the past and the future and to engage in abstract thought has given us access to some uncomfortable truths,” Routledge writes. Is there no more to life than working and dying? With their increasing detachment from religion, the young may have difficulty finding the identity and human dignity that a belief in a higher power can afford, leaving them to question their own value in society.

Kilroy J. Oldster, the author of the Dead Toad Scrolls, calls suicide “an emotional reaction to the absurdity of life… a panic-stricken reflex induced by the sinister twins of fear and foreboding.” The young seem more prone to this reflex because life experiences make adults more pragmatic—and rational. “A thinking person accepts that, while he or she might never comprehend a unifying meaning of life, they prefer to experience each permitted day of life to the fullest,” Oldster writes.

A Crisis Not Just for the Gifted

Of course, overwhelming emotion—and dread—conjured by pondering life’s meaning is not limited to the young, the gifted, and the non-religious. For example, in a study published online in 2018, researchers reported that patients with advanced cancers often experience existential dilemmas, suffering “high rates of psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, and spiritual despair.” These same scientists found that “individual, meaning-centered psychotherapy” is oftentimes effective in “improving spiritual well-being and quality of life.”

Authors of a 2018 study in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care report that “self-reflective learning groups” or peer-group discussions among patients can help the terminally ill bridge the existential challenges posed by pending death.

Loss or tragedy in one’s life; arrival at a significant age marker, such as 50, 60, or 70; guilt about a past action or event; and intense dissatisfaction with one's career choice can also force a person down a reflective path to existential depression.

Existential Depression Is Not All Bad

Symptoms of existential depression include feelings of disconnectedness; intense, unhealthy anxiety about world issues; increased isolation from others; lack of motivation; and withdrawal from activities that were once a source of excitement and joy. People are just going through the motions. The disorder may be difficult to diagnose, but approaches such as psychoeducation can help one not only survive it but, perhaps, experience what some experts define as the Greek “metanoia”—a transformation of mind and heart, even a conversion of one’s life purposes.

“Depression is not merely an inopportune ‘disease.’ Sometimes it is an opportunity that allows us a new and more authentic view of existence,” writes Lodovico Berra in an article in the March 2019 issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Beyond life circumstances and psychology, it is worthwhile noting that some seemingly "existential" depression may fundamentally be a true depression—with a biological and hereditary basis.

With such words in mind, here are some tips for navigating through an existential crisis:

  • “Reframe your mindset,” according to an April 2020 article headlined "The Existential Crisis Survival Guide." That means finding something of value to do in your life, such as volunteering or enjoying a new activity like tennis, dancing, or piano lessons.
  • Accept that there are questions beyond the answerable limits of the human mind. We all grapple with them. Do research that can provide some context for what you struggle to understand.
  • Remember that you—and your ego—are not in control of everything. You must rely on others for support. Trust and use their advice to make the right choices.
  • Rejoice in everyday life. A flower gives its all by offering value and beauty without question or regard to its short duration. We all have a purpose in life. Find yours.
  • Seek professional counseling if your questioning and rumination continue to overwhelm.
  • Finally, know you are not alone. When it comes to matters of life—and death—there’s a bit of that Frankenstein monster in all of us.
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