The Existential Crisis

The Existential Crisis

The phrase “existential crisis” is a philosophy/psychology term used to describe intense feelings of anxiety, dread and meaninglessness. Attributed to the major existential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger, an existential crisis also includes “anguish”, which is an emotional condition that Sartre considered an essential part of being human.

Anguish emerges when we realize that our decisions to perform certain actions will profoundly affect our own existence as well as the existence of others.

Philosophically, “anguish” and the existential crisis partly arise from the idea that we have been “abandoned” in this world and have no way of knowing whether our decisions are “good” or “bad”. Another Sartrean term is despair, which co-exists with anguish, abandonment and the terrifying (to substance abusers) epiphany of having absolute freedom in a passive and meaningless world.

Inability to Cope with Responsibilities

Ultimately emerging from the realization that we have so many inescapable responsibilities, an existential crisis may lead to feelings of meaninglessness, anxiety and bewilderment. These feelings may be so overwhelming that the choices made by individuals susceptible to substance abuse tend to contribute directly to their substance addiction.

Conforming and the Existential Crisis

Many people who abuse substances have strong, nonconforming personalities that clash with the expectations of societal norms. To them, conformity does not allow for achievement, individuality or dissatisfaction with being forced to accept responsibilities. An existential (depression) crisis may strike a person suddenly when constant friction in their life forces them to think about life, death, meaning and why they must suffer when they see others being content and happy.

It is entirely normal for anyone to experience despair and hopelessness after an unsettling life event, like a death in the family, a fire destroys their home or someone they love abruptly leaves them. For those that are plagued by feelings of hopelessness, alienation and a sense that everybody is just “pretending” to like them, an existential crisis is a never-ending encounter with the deepest, darkest part of their true being that no one else could ever know or understand.

What Triggers an Existential Crisis?

Psychologists consider an existential crisis a form of clinical depression resulting from years of feeling dissatisfied, unhappy, unfulfilled and possibly unloved. Typically, an existential crisis can be triggered by one or more of the following:

  • Death of a loved one or friend (often forces the person to realize their own mortality)
  • Divorce
  • Job loss, lack of steady employment or being forced to take jobs they do not want
  • Being diagnosed with a chronic or incurable disease
  • Turning 30, 40, 50, etc. (birthdays cause many people to take a long, hard look back at their lives and what they have accomplished or not accomplished)
  • Reading about violence in the world or seeing graphic images of people suffering on the news makes people question the meaning of life and ultimately, the meaning of their own existence
  • Other psychological or physical trauma

Addiction and Existential Crises

Just like people suffering chronic pain conditions, mental illness or unbearable life situations self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, those experiencing the anxiety, depression and anguish of an unresolved existential crisis may also turn to addictive substances. They often do it to relieve the torment of dark thoughts and feelings of utter despair and meaninglessness from which they feel that can’t escape.

Substance abuse diagnosed with comorbid disorders involving depression, anxiety, derealization and the hauntingly disruptive emotions associated with an existential crisis can be addressed. Therapists experienced in addiction counseling and other psychotherapies are necessary to help the individual understand what they are feeling, why they are feeling this way and how they can cope with an existential crises with resorting to drugs or alcohol.