Emotional struggles are a common part of everyday life. The overwhelming majority of Americans (and people the world over) experience difficulties with depression, anxiety, and stress. These emotions can arise for various reasons, but often, they are short-lived and typically resolved on their own. In most cases, although a temporary inconvenience, symptoms related to these temporary changes in mood do not significantly impact a teen’s overall quality of life.
Unfortunately for others, negative emotions can lead to feelings of deep and overwhelming despair. In the worst of cases, it can cause your teen to question their place or purpose in life. This is known as an existential crisis. The idea of existential crisis is not new. However, it is not something that many are familiar with. Researchers have studied the concept of existential crisis since the early 1900s; however, it can be challenging to understand how its symptoms differ from that “normal” anxiety and depression.
Understanding Existential Crisis
Incidences of deep depression can cause people to struggle temporarily with their purpose in life. When depressed, getting out of bed is complicated, and sometimes it is easy to wonder why it is worth pursuing certain tasks when everything feels like a failure. Again, most incidences of depression resolve independently and do not have a significant impact on day-to-day life. In some cases, teens will seek treatment for depression at a teen-focused treatment center like Beachside to learn how to better manage the intensity of their symptoms.
An existential crisis is different. An existential crisis occurs when your teen starts to wonder what life means and what their purpose or the purpose of their life is. An existential crisis occurs when your teen suddenly wants the answers to some of life’s biggest questions (that are often never answered), such as, what is my purpose on this earth? What am I supposed to do with my life? Why am I here?
A large part of teen development is the process of searching for purpose and meaning behind life and forging a path towards the future. However, with an existential crisis, your teen is unable to find satisfactory answers. In some cases, the inability to find answers triggers overwhelming internal personal conflict, leading to frustration and lack of joy. It is important to note that an existential crisis can occur to anyone at any age. However, many people experience an existential crisis when faced with difficult decisions or faced with the inability to succeed or accomplish a goal.
Existential Crisis-Causes & Types
An existential crisis often follows a significant event such as major trauma or loss or a situation that led to a period of deep despair. Some of the most common causes of an existential crisis can include the death of a loved one or facing the reality of one’s own death, dissatisfaction with oneself, significant guilt, or feeling socially unfulfilled. While this is no means an exhaustive list, it outlines some of the significant events in a teen’s life that could lead to an existential crisis.
There are five broad types of existential crises.
The first is a crisis of freedom and responsibility. It is the point in one’s life where they learn that with freedom comes responsibility and consequences for their choices. If your teen uses their freedom to make a choice that doesn’t end well, it is much more challenging to place the blame on someone else. In some cases, this freedom is too overwhelming and triggers existential anxiety. However, this is more than just everyday anxiety as it is characterized by an all-encompassing fear about the meaning of life and the meaning of the choices they make.
The next type of existential crisis arises out of death and mortality. This crisis often results because of turning a certain age or being faced with one’s own mortality in the event of trauma or illness. For some, attaining a certain age forces them to confront the reality of their life entering its twilight years. This leads to questions about the foundation of life and what has been accomplished or not accomplished—fear of what may follow death or fear of not achieving your goals before death can trigger anxiety.
Another type of existential crisis is a crisis of isolation and connectedness. Although most humans enjoy periods of isolation and solitude, most are social beings, and solid relationships and communication provide mental and emotional support necessary for personal satisfaction and happiness. When people drift apart physically or emotionally, it can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, causing some people to feel as though their life is pointless. Circumstances such as death, divorce, and friends moving away can lead to the existential crisis of isolation for teens.
The feeling that life has meaning and purpose provides hope that even during dark times, things will improve. Unfortunately, if someone reflects on their life and feels as though they haven’t accomplished their goals (or, in the case of teens, they fail to complete academic or athletic achievements), it can lead to feelings of failure. When one feels as though their accomplishments were too small to be significant or failed to make any difference at all, it leads to questions about whether their existence was worthwhile at all. This type of existential crisis is known as a crisis of meaning and meaninglessness.
Finally, a crisis of emotion, experiences, and embodiment are those crises that arise from not allowing oneself to feel negative emotions. The inability to acknowledge that negative emotions are an inevitable part of life can lead to crisis. There is a misguided belief among many that blocking out pain and suffering promotes happiness. Conversely, it often leads to a false sense of joy. When one cannot feel true happiness, which sometimes results from feeling pain, life inevitably feels empty and unfulfilling.
Symptoms of an Existential Crisis
Depression does not equate to an existential crisis. However, when one experiences depression tied to the need to find meaning in life or a feeling of self-worth, it could point to symptoms of an existential crisis. If your teen is experiencing an existential crisis, they may experience normal feelings of depression. Common symptoms of depression often include headaches, feelings of hopelessness, persistent sadness, fatigue, and loss of interest in favorite activities. If they’re experiencing existential depression, they may also have thoughts about suicide, self-harm, or feeling as though their life does not have a purpose. The hopelessness with this type of depression is deeply related to feelings of meaninglessness.
Existential crisis can also arise out of anxiety. This type of anxiety differs from everyday stress and anxiety because everything leads to feelings of discomfort.
Overcoming and Existential Crisis
Finding purpose and meaning in life is the best way to overcome an existential crisis. As simple as that may sound, it is not that easy when one finds themselves in a state of deep depression or anxiety triggered by an existential crisis. Below are some ways to manage symptoms and, through self-care and, if necessary, therapy, overcome them.
Take Control of Negative Thoughts
Placing negative and unhealthy thoughts with positive thoughts is an excellent way to begin the process of overcoming an existential crisis. Unfortunately, many of the beliefs associated with an existential crisis can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Instead, it is important to encourage your teen to take active steps to accomplish the things that help them feel as though their life has meaning. Encourage them to try a new hobby, volunteer for a cause in which they think they could make a difference, etc.
Keep A Gratitude Journal
As with many things, it is likely life has more meaning than your teen believes. Encouraging them to keep a gratitude journal and write down everything they are grateful for can help bring this realization to light. Encourage them to consider elements in their life such as family, talents, accomplishments, friends, and all other aspects of their life that bring them pleasure and joy.
Don’t Expect to Answer Every Question
Although it is OK to seek answers to life space questions, it is essential to remember that some questions do not have answers. To overcome an existential crisis, it is vital to take the big questions and break them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Finding solutions to those questions can bring about satisfaction in smaller increments. Eventually, as more minor questions get answered, they can help put the bigger pieces of the puzzle together.
When to Seek Help
In some cases, it is possible to overcome an existential crisis without reaching out for help. However, if symptoms do not go away or self-help and self-care techniques do not help relieve the severity of symptoms, it is essential to reach out for help from a therapist at Beachside. Our caring and compassionate, teen-focused therapists can help your teen cope with the crisis and learn better ways to manage and reduce negative thoughts. Using evidence-based therapies like talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, your teen will learn how to examine their negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. If you are concerned, your teen may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or is engaging in self-harm, you must seek medical treatment immediately. Like many mental health disorders, the depression and anxiety that arise from an existential crisis can be managed with proper therapy and an understanding of the root causes behind symptoms.
An existential crisis is a mental health challenge that knows no bounds. It can happen to anyone leading that person to question their very existence in life. Despite the severity and potential seriousness of the emotions tied to this thinking pattern, it is indeed possible to overcome existential crisis through self-help, self-reflection, and the caring and supportive guidance of the treatment team here at Beachside. If you would like to learn more about our treatment programs here in our Los Angeles area teen treatment facility, reach out to our admissions team today.