Not all forms of therapy focus solely on the past. In existential therapy, a therapist can help you examine the big picture of your existence and your values.
Imagine waking up, washing your face, looking in the mirror and thinking, “Is that it?
Maybe you feel this because you lost someone you love. Or you recently experienced a milestone, birthday, or life transition, and it feels empty or different than you imagined.
Or maybe you don’t know why you feel this way… You just do.
If you’re wondering what you’re doing here and it’s affecting your quality of life, you’re not alone. Existential therapy can help you explore deeper questions to find meaning in your life.
You may have heard the term “existential crisis” before.
“Existential” refers to your existence, as in what it means to you to be a human being.
Existential therapy is an extension of this line of thinking. It is a style of philosophical therapy that explores the human condition.
“The goal of existential therapy is to help you find meaning and purpose in your life as you confront and articulate your values,” says Iris Waichler, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago.
Existential therapy explores four key concepts:
“Existential therapy studies issues of life and death and explores how to get the most out of life,” says Waichler. “This process can help improve your self-awareness, create more meaningful relationships, and identify what brings the most meaning to your life.”
In many ways, existential therapy sessions seem similar to other therapy sessions, says Dr. Lea McMahon, a licensed counselor in Houston.
“Therapists ask you standard questions, you answer them honestly, and the session builds from there,” she explains. “You can talk about your anxieties, fears and concerns, while your therapist helps you get to the root of these, in order to recognize and overcome them.”
However, there are some key differences between this treatment and other treatments.
“The existential therapy approach doesn’t dwell as much on the past as some other treatments do, but only uses it as a tool to better understand oneself,” adds McMahon.
Also, your therapist will likely focus on your overall well-being instead of addressing one symptom at a time.
You can explore questions such as:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
- Why do bad things happen?
- Does life have a meaning?
- What is the purpose of my existence?
When you talk about your thoughts and feelings, it can encourage introspection, McMahon says.
Additionally, your therapist can guide and support you with:
- empathetic reflection: connect the dots between your emotions and events
- Socratic question: help you define your core beliefs and values
- active listening: using subtle encouragement to help you open up
Existential therapy can address a wide range of concerns.
According to Waichler, existential therapy can be effective for people with:
Even if there is no formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) for your specific experience, you may still find this modality helpful.
The uses of existential therapy are vast. Research shows that existential therapy has supported many people, including:
You may have recently experienced a loss or are having difficulty dealing with one of life’s many changes. Or maybe you are facing fear of the unknown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All of this is valid, and all of these can be good reasons to try existential therapy.
In general, this may be right for you if:
- You have the desire to explore deep concepts.
- You possess a strong capacity for self-reflection.
- You prefer intellectual therapies.
- You want to understand your values and motivations.
- You recognize the role of pain in the growth process (post-traumatic growth).
Post-traumatic growth, although uncomfortable, is central to this modality.
“Some may view this as depressing or negative,” says Waichler. “But the reason is inherent in existential therapy. It’s the notion that people have to experience some type of suffering in order to begin to explore and understand these deeper levels of the human condition.
In other words, as painful as it may be, you grow through what you go through.
Overall, existential therapy can help you understand your “why”.
Some common benefits of existential therapy includes:
- fight against the fear of the unknown
- find meaning in life
- motivation to live life to the fullest
- increased openness to life’s opportunities
- greater self-control through self-reflection
- understand your goals, values and relationships
That said, existential therapy may not be the best solution for everyone.
“One limitation is that the process can be too intellectual. Additionally, it may conflict with certain religious beliefs,” says McMahon.
Some people may also find it too difficult because it welcomes painful experiences as a catalyst for your growth. You may feel called to deal with other symptoms before you open up to these kinds of conversations.
If you’re curious to try Existential Therapy, you don’t need to see a specialist to feel the benefits. Elements of this modality can be incorporated into your therapy of choice, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Research from 2021 shows a growing overlap between these two types of therapy. In tandem, existential therapy and CBT can help you understand the root of your thought patterns and how they impact your current behaviors.
For example, if you have a fear of death or anxiety about the future, existential therapy can help you figure out why, while CBT can provide tools to help you deal with those anxious thoughts.
Existential therapy focuses on your essence as a human being, rather than specific symptoms or an overall diagnosis.
Your therapist’s techniques can be used to explore the meaning of life (to you), what your values are, and how you can then translate these ideas into tangible actions.
Existential therapy can require a lot of introspection and curiosity for deep concepts. It is generally a good choice for people who enjoy more intellectual forms of therapy.
To find out if you can benefit from this therapy modality, you can use Psych Central’s search tools to find a therapist with experience in existential therapy.