Existential crisis, also known as existential dread, are moments when individuals question whether their lives have meaning, purpose, or value, and are negatively impacted by the contemplation. It may be commonly, but not necessarily, tied to depression or inevitably negative speculations on purpose in life such as the futility of all effort (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 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 18, turning 40, etc.), etc. Usually, it provokes the sufferer's introspection about personal mortality, thus revealing the psychological repression of said awareness. Existential crisis can be similar to anxiety and depression.
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 methods 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.
Others believe an existential crisis is actually a good thing—a burden of gifted individuals and deep thinkers that sets them apart from those who don’t think deeply about life:
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.— James Webb, “Existential depression in gifted individuals”
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.
- Richard K. James, Crisis intervention strategies
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