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Most people have heard of a mid-life crisis, but what about an existential crisis?

Most of us are conditioned to travel through life merely going through the motions. Eat, work, sleep, and repeat seem to be the standard for living. For some, this keeps away any existential distress or uncertainty about their current life experience. 

Many other people, especially those that struggle with mental illness, become overwhelmed at the thought of existence. Whether or not a person begins searching for meaning in their life, thoughts about life and death inevitably cross their mind from time to time.

It is essential to embrace the uncertainty of life to be fully present. Understanding existential distress can allow you to find deeper meaning and connection to your own life experience. 

What Is Existential Distress?

Existential distress, in general, is ambivalent and intense turmoil that surrounds the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death. Existential distress is multi-dimensional, meaning that it involves multiple factors. These factors include personal identity, meaninglessness, hopelessness, and even fear of death itself. 

Existential distress might also be referred to as death anxiety. There is nothing unusual about questioning the reason for human existence. However, while we may not know why, we know that humans are mortal beings. Although we know death is inevitable, the thought of it is likely to cause unsettling feelings. 

Many people are encouraged to question existence, purpose, and even the afterlife through religion and spirituality. Other people rarely question existence because of the despair that might accompany suggested or long-attended beliefs. No matter where a person stands in their faith, existential distress is likely to be experienced at some point in a person’s life. 

What Might Cause Existential Distress?

While normal feelings of stress and anxiety may not provoke an existential crisis, these feelings may indeed contribute to intense experiences of existential distress. These include:

  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Experiences of grief, such as the loss of a loved one
  • Receiving a life-threatening diagnosis
  • Racing the reality of one’s mortality
  • Feeling socially unfulfilled
  • History of untreated or unresolved mental distress 
  • History of burnout
  • Increased freedom to make decisions 
  • Loss of connectedness to self or others

Many individuals are faced with existential distress as they grow old or are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Research shows that existential distress is linked to increased anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. 

How to Face Existential Distress

There are several ways to cope with feelings of existential distress and dread. By allowing yourself to be fully present in your own life experience and searching for purpose and meaning in the process, you can break free from these uncomfortable and distressing feelings of existence. 

#1. Be more mindful. One of the most important things that you can do for yourself is connecting deeply to the present moment in front of you. Mindfulness allows you to interact intimately with yourself and others, no matter the environment. Become more mindful by taking time to meditate, keeping track of your feelings and life experiences in a journal, and taking time to appreciate all that you have. 

#2. Challenge your intrusive thoughts. Another critical coping mechanism you can take advantage of is to learn how to challenge any intrusive thoughts that might cross your mind. Replace any pessimistic thoughts with positive ones. Find meaning in the life experiences that you might think lack any deeper meaning whatsoever. Pursue any personal passions that you may have.

#3. Find purpose in your life. If you are unsure what it means to find purpose in your life and how to find it, do some deep introspective work. It is essential that you find faith in your life and recovery, as it helps foster confidence, forgiveness, and support. Consider learning about different spiritual or religious perspectives to help you find clarity and connectedness. Find and hold on to what makes sense to you and cherish it. 

#4. Find peace in uncertainty. There is no guidebook for life that has all the answers. Different cultures, religions, and societies will give you various responses to the questions that you seek about life. Attempt to understand and accept the reality that many questions about existence and life do not have answers. There is much freedom in acceptance. Try to find peace and support from your friends, family, and other loved ones that are going through the same life experience as you. Find beauty in different perspectives and different beliefs. Enjoy the temporariness of this experience as best as you can. 

Existential distress defines the mental turmoil that is often experienced when people are faced with the reality of their existence–including life and death. While most people may not experience existential distress until they are faced with old age or a life-threatening illness, others that struggle with mental illness may contemplate the unknowns more often than others. It is important to understand the causes of existential distress and realize that it is a normal part of everyone’s life experience. West Coast Recovery Centers offer treatment that combines and applies traditional and holistic approaches to mental health care and recovery. Our holistic options will allow you to connect more deeply to yourself and your recovery. We create individualized treatment plans for our clients and work intimately with the goals you want for your recovery. For more information about the resources and treatment options we offer, please call us today at (760) 492-6509