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Existential Therapy: What Is It?

Life is filled with a lot of big questions: What’s the point? What’s the meaning? Why am I here? Existential theory tries to answer a lot of those questions to help people find meaning and understanding. - Healthline 2020

Existential therapy assists people find meaning and purpose in their lives. It seeks to end the fear related to the unknown. According to Irvin Yalom (American Psychiatrist), there are four givens or universal truths of existence. These givens are potential triggers for anxiety and depression that have come to prevent people from living their most satisfying life. These four essential truths are:

  • death

  • meaninglessness

  • isolation

  • freedom or a responsibility to make the best choices

Existential therapy is designed to help people navigate and overcome the uncomfortable emotions that develop from these issues.

Therapists who practice existential therapy work to support their clients through their journey of self-discovery. Clients engaged in Existential Therapy work to develop their own ideas and options as to the answer of life's mysteries. It is through this journey that clients are able to provide themselves with a level of comfort through the unknown. Existential Therapy focuses less on the past experience of the client and more on the surviving the present and planning for the future.

Existential Therapists encourage patients to use creativity, love, and other life-enhancing experiences to help them make decisions and determine their behaviors for the future. In this process, a therapist hopes to help their patient learn to think and act without concern for anxiety or fear of messing up one’s life.

Existential therapy can be incorporated into any type of psychotherapy. The techniques of this philosophy involve talking, listening, answering questions, and engaging with your therapist over many weeks, possibly months. But instead of treating a symptom directly, such as anxiety, existential therapy aims to focus on the person as a whole.

As an example, existential therapy would suggest that people with addiction disorder are dealing with anxiety and fear because of one of the essential givens. But, they didn’t find a resolution that left them reassured. They then turned to substance use and misuse.

For an existential therapist, in that case, they would work to help the person with the use disorder face that anxiety head-on. They may help their patient identify why those anxieties and fears feel so overwhelming.

They may even try to introduce patients to experiences that enhance their well-being. These may include relationships, courage, spirituality, and others. This positive affirmation and engagement helps the therapist guide you to thoughtful responsibility — and hopefully the end of substance misuse. No matter the specific technique, the goal behind existential therapy is to let people grow and embrace their lives, their wishes, and their curiosity without fear of the givens. It aims to address issues of empathy, the here and now, and even dreams, which can reflect unconscious fantasies, with the help of an existential therapist.

Existential therapy may be beneficial for people with a variety of symptoms, including but not limited to:

  • anxiety

  • dependency or use disorders

  • depression

  • post-traumatic stress disorder

  • apathy

  • shame

  • resentment

  • rage

  • meaninglessness

  • psychosis

This type of practice is often perceived as too pessimistic or dark for some people. That’s because it embraces the painful, hurtful elements of life. For example, one goal of this therapy is to learn to not be afraid of death so that fear of death doesn’t control your choices. This can be particularly bothersome but necessary subject for those with a history of depression with suicidal thoughts.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with worry or anxiety when you stop to think about your future, your purpose, your meaning. Those are big questions. In fact, for some people, contemplating these questions too often or without good resolution can lead to an existential crisis. The goal of existential therapy is to help people not feel overwhelmed by the future, the inevitable, and the possibility in life. In existential therapy you will learn to find a balance between being aware of your purpose in this life and to not be overwhelmed by it.

Adapted from

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