Your high achieving, over-extended, academically successful teen suddenly hit a brick wall! Their traditional work ethic, predictability, and strong desire to please have seemingly overnight been carelessly tossed aside instead for reckless abandon, anger, depression, and hatred. You may feel that your world has been turned on its head, leaving you emotionally drained, stressed and exhausted!
As a thousand questions swirl around you, you may be at this moment trying to backtrack to figure out what could possibly have happened to trigger such rage and deep depressive state. Has someone hurt my child? Have they lost someone or been abused? Here you were, cruising through the relatively uneventful teenage years. There were the occasional outbursts, the freak-outs when she couldn’t find her beloved headphones, the drama when the girl didn’t respond to his text messages. You most certainly have experienced the mood swings, door slamming and eye-rolling. But this has raised the bar on “normal” teenage behavior. This drastic, dramatic, and erratic behavior is categorized as an existential crisis and can occur in teenagers and young adults.
An existential crisis may be defined as a moment in which a teen suddenly questions their meaning, purpose, value and overall existence. It is that point in a teen’s life when they hit a metaphorical brick wall and they are deeply concerned about what they will do with their lives, why does it all matter and who will even care if they have a purpose or not. As this crisis can lead to severe negative and depressive thoughts, teens who are suffering may be at risk of inflicting self-harm or even attempting to commit suicide.
We all know that the adolescent years are stressful by the very nature. But adding the prospect of teens having to make decisions about life, career, and college, some teens become overwhelmed to the point that their brain is pushed over the proverbial edge. Everything from the large career choice decisions to the minuscule decisions about getting out of bed, what to wear and ‘should I brush my teeth’ become pointless in their mind and utterly overwhelming. A teen who is experiencing an existential crisis may suddenly view every aspect of life as absurd, meaningless and unproductive. In fact, an existential crisis may come on unexpectedly or slowly build in strength but either way, the extreme feelings of loneliness and fatalism make for a terrified teenager.
The meaning of life
While everyone may question their purpose or meaning for their life, a teen experiencing an existential crisis will be unable to find solutions or answers to their questions that fully meet their needs or satisfaction. In other words, the more that they try to identify what the future holds for them, the deeper they fall into despair and depression. None of us knows what the future may hold but in not knowing, some teens may be forced into a state that is dark and gloomy causing deep personal conflict. Everything that they have known and believed about their life and future somehow seems unreachable, unimportant and frankly impossible. A teen deep into this type of depression will see no point in their life and no other way out other than ending their life altogether.
When you think of depression in teens, you may think of something that has occurred in their life that may have triggered it. An existential crisis or depression is no different and can be triggered by certain events during a teen’s life, typically a significant event:
- Loss of a loved one
- Deep feelings of guilt about something
- An accident or traumatic event
- Natural disaster
It may also be caused by a teen’s deep-seated feelings of personal dissatisfaction or social ineptness. If they believe that they are an outcast or outsider, they may be more prone to hold in these feelings and emotions, bottling them up only to explode into an existential crisis at a later date.
Existential? What does it really mean?
The term existential crisis or depression stems from the theory of existentialism in which people believe that as humans we have the responsibility and freedom to choose our own destiny. That being said, this concept can weigh very heavily on some people, knowing that their entire existence revolves around the decisions that they make and the overwhelming number of choices in front of them. For a teen who may be on the right track, pushing forward toward a goal, seeking to reach their full potential or what they believe their potential may be, they may come to a sudden realization that they don’t know what their purpose or goal is after all. They hit a brick wall or in other words, suddenly and dramatically shift how they view themselves, the world around them and their place in it.
There are several types or characteristics of teens who may be more susceptible to a dramatic shift in their perception of the world than others.
- Teens suffering from or susceptible to depression. A family history of depression may make a teen more prone to not only experience depression itself but to fall victim to an existential crisis. Depression already makes teens have low self-esteem, to have deep feelings of sadness and loneliness, leaving them exposed and open to thoughts of meaninglessness and hopelessness.
- The caregiver. Unfortunately, many teens are tasked with a heavy burden early in life. Maybe they have to care for a sick parent from a young age or go to work to help support the family. In their constant need to care for and give to others, and as the normal challenges of adolescence kick-in, they find themselves questioning their purpose in life and especially THIS life. Burnout is commonplace among healthcare workers and those who work in charities. It can also dramatically increase the likelihood of a teen experiencing an existential crisis as their perception of the world is skewed by their immediate situation.
- Teens who are goal-oriented, driven and extremely responsible. Aside from having a goal in sight, they are also pleasers and are terrified of disappointing their parents and loved ones. In their attempt at perfection, they place a tremendous amount of stress on themselves to achieve their goals and to reach their full potential. At some point, they begin to question what the value is of what they are trying to achieve and what the purpose of their hard work and effort truly is. While being driven and committed are excellent qualities to possess, teens also have to have a sense of balance between working hard for what they want to achieve and having fun along the way.
- The humanitarian. Some teens are wired to see the good in all people; to believe that everyone is capable of kindness, compassion, and love. Unfortunately, the reality of the world can be disappointing. As they grow into adults, teens who believe that the world is made up of good, well-intentioned people may feel disillusioned and bitter as they see things for what they are. They may question their beliefs about humanity and their role in it. They certainly may be disenchanted with the idea of helping and believing in others for the greater good.
What to look for
Although it may appear that your teen both literally and figuratively hits the wall as they suddenly and atypically display signs of anger, aggression and thoughts of suicide, there are in fact many signs and symptoms that they may display leading up to the crisis itself.
- Disinterest in school, sports or extracurricular activities
- Falling behind on homework or test grades
- Purposeful separation from family and friends
- Sudden interest in the meaning of life
- An obsession with death
- Extreme emotions about society, life, and community
- Low level of motivation
- A belief that change of any kind is futile and a waste of energy and time
A teen who may be experiencing existential depression may truly believe that nothing they do will change the course of their life so what is the point in trying to do well in school, in attempting to make friends or to even take care of themselves. If a teen has experienced the death of a loved one or friend, this may trigger desperate thoughts of worthlessness and deeper questions about why any of us should bother trying to live if we are all simply going to die anyway. This fatalistic viewpoint can be so deeply ingrained in a teen’s brain that they can no longer exert themselves physically or mentally. They see no point in life and believe that the person who has passed is truly in a better position than they are. Thoughts of suicide will be all-consuming and a very viable option in their brain. Not only is this a terrifying mental space to occupy for a teen with no ambitions, goals or beliefs to hold onto for this life but more importantly for the loved ones watching these emotions unfold.
Seek medical attention
In other words, an existential crisis is a very serious disorder and should be treated as such. If you suspect that your teenager may be having these types of thoughts or emotions, it is imperative that you seek advice from a medical professional as soon as possible. The depression associated with an existential crisis is not simply something that they will get over or will work through on their own. Your teen will require the expertise of trained mental health professionals like those at Beachside Treatment Center to help them to evaluate their purpose and meaning for their lives in a healthy way.
The question then remains, “how is existential crisis treated?” Of course, the first step is seeking medical advice from your child’s pediatrician who will refer them to a mental health professional. They will then be referred to a treatment facility like Beachside Treatment Center for intensive therapy and counseling. It is important to remember that an existential crisis is not something that can be avoided or brushed under the carpet but requires the assistance of trained medical professionals to help your teen to recover and lead a productive, happy life.
During treatment, teens will learn to break free of the crisis and learn new tips for managing their thoughts and feelings. They will learn to replace the negative thoughts in their brain with positive, encouraging ones. Teens will be encouraged to write down all of those things for which they are grateful so that they can learn to appreciate their life and its value. During group and individual therapy sessions, teens will explore the good in themselves and the positive impact that they have had on others.
There is hope for teens experiencing an existential crisis. With the proper diagnosis, care and treatment, they can learn the appropriate skills to manage their symptoms of depression and to successfully maneuver through the crisis. In order to help them on their journey, you can give them some words of advice:
- The process of recovery requires baby steps. Take it slowly and do not try to tackle everything at once.
- An existential crisis can be terrifying for you and for your loved ones! Understand that you are not alone and you have a great support system.
- Accept yourself for who you are including your good and bad qualities!
- Find your passion. Whatever it is that you enjoyed in the past; try to get back to it and let yourself truly appreciate life.
- If your existential crisis was triggered or caused by a traumatic event, be sure to address it head-on. For example, grief may have played a role in your experience so it is imperative that you seek counseling for the event or loss itself.
- Your life has a purpose and meaning. This is just a speed bump in your journey. Keep pushing forward in your path.
An existential crisis is a critical situation for terrified teens, one which if not addressed may be fatal. If you suspect that your teen may be experiencing an existential crisis, immediately get them the help that they desperately need. The trained professionals at Beachside Treatment Center will help to get your child back on track to understanding their self-worth and to see the value and importance of their life.