Existential crises are moments when individuals question whether their lives have meaning, purpose, or value. It may be commonly, but not necessarily, tied to depression or inevitably negative speculations on purpose in life (e.g., "if one day I will be forgotten, what is the point of all of my work?"). This issue of the meaning and purpose of human existence is a major focus of the philosophical tradition of existentialism.
An existential crisis may result from, be misdiagnosed as, or be combined with (but is not limited to):
- Major depressive disorder
- Depersonalization disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Schizoid personality disorder
- Obsessive–compulsive disorder
- Major sleep deprivation
- Prolonged isolation
- Dissatisfaction with one's life
- Major psychological trauma
- Psychedelic drug trip
- The sense of being alone and isolated in the world
- A new-found grasp or appreciation of one's mortality, perhaps following diagnosis of a major health concern such as a terminal illness
- Believing that one's life has no purpose or external meaning
- Uncertainty about old age or the afterlife
- Fear of death or its inevitability
- Searching for the meaning of life
- Shattering of one's sense of reality, or how the world is
- An extremely pleasurable or hurtful experience that leaves one seeking meaning
- Realizing that the Universe is larger, more complex, more mysterious, and/or generally beyond present day individual or collective human understanding
An existential crisis may often be provoked by a significant event in the person's life—psychological trauma, marriage, separation, major loss, the death of a loved one, a life-threatening experience, a new love partner, psychoactive drug use, adult children leaving home, reaching a personally significant age (turning 16, turning 40, etc.), etc. Usually, it provokes the sufferer's introspection about personal mortality, thus revealing the psychological repression of said awareness.
An existential crisis may resemble anomie (a personal condition resulting from a lack of norms) or a midlife crisis. An existential crisis may stem from one's new perception of life and existence. Analogously, existentialism posits that a person can and does define the meaning and purpose of his or her life, and therefore must choose to resolve the crisis of existence.
In existentialist philosophy, the term 'existential crisis' specifically relates to the crisis of the individual when they realize that they must always define their own lives through the choices they make. The existential crisis occurs when one recognizes that even the decision to either refrain from action or withhold assent to a particular choice is, in itself, a choice. In other words, humankind is "condemned" to freedom.
Peter Wessel Zapffe, a Norwegian philosopher and adherent of nihilism and antinatalism, asserted in his essay, The Last Messiah, four ways that he believed all self-conscious beings use in order to cope with their apprehension of indifference and absurdity in existence—anchoring, isolation, distraction, and sublimation:
- Anchoring is the "fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness". The anchoring mechanism provides individuals with 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.
- Isolation is "a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling".
- Distraction occurs 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.
- Sublimation is the refocusing of energy away from negative outlets, toward positive ones. Individuals distance themselves and look at their existence from an aesthetic point of view (e.g., writers, poets, painters). Zapffe himself pointed out that his written works were the product of sublimation.
Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life.
In the 19th century, Kierkegaard considered that angst and existential despair would appear when an inherited or borrowed world-view (often of a collective nature) proved unable to handle unexpected and extreme life-experiences. Nietzsche extended his views to suggest that the Death of God—the loss of collective faith in religion and traditional morality—created a more widespread existential crisis for the philosophically aware.
Existential crisis has indeed been seen as the inevitable accompaniment of modernism (c.1890–1945). Whereas Durkheim saw individual crises as the by-product of social pathology and a (partial) lack of collective norms, others have seen existentialism as arising more broadly from the modernist crisis of the loss of meaning throughout the modern world. Its twin answers were either a religion revivified by the experience of anomie (as with Martin Buber), or an individualistic existentialism based on facing directly the absurd contingency of human fate within a meaningless and alien universe, as with Sartre and Camus.
Irvin Yalom, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University has made fundamental contributions to the field of existential psychotherapy. Rollo May is another of the founders of this approach.
Fredric Jameson has suggested that postmodernism, with its saturation of social space by a visual consumer culture, has replaced the modernist angst of the traditional subject, and with it the existential crisis of old, by a new social pathology of flattened affect and a fragmented subject.
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