Thoughts From The Couch – Existential crisis

Sixteen weeks has passed and the United Kingdom is still in the midst of a partial nationwide lockdown, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the daily numbers of deaths in the UK has fallen significantly, which is good news, it is hard to forget that there have been 45,119 deaths from the coronavirus in the UK, so far, with a reported 587,000 deaths worldwide, since the onset of the pandemic. We are going through a period of confusion as England loosens its lockdown restrictions, with the Government giving conflicting messages, resulting in no one being really clear as to what we are emerging back into. There is much pressure to get the economy back up and running and for people to get back to work amidst the whisperings of an expected second wave in the autumn. We are having to make snap judgements about what is safe and what is not when, actually we haven’t really got a clue. Most of us are struggling with the confusion, unpredictability and lack of control that is permeating every aspect of our lives and that is, indeed, challenging.

Countless peoples lives have been deeply impacted by this pandemic, leading to losses of things that were previously taken for granted. There are many aspects that have rocked our sense of security and pose a significant threat to our way of living and structure. We are being challenged to be creative and re-evaluate our lives. Several of my clients talk of their lives being ‘totally thrown off course.’ For them they had felt they were on a path and whether it be as a result of losing their job, the death of a loved one, emergent problems in a relationship or just many weeks in isolation with much time to think, lives have shuddered to a stop and they perceive themselves to be totally unprepared for the next step. They no longer feel safe and secure in their external world, and suddenly their internal world is preoccupied with questions of meaning and purpose. It feels as if their sense of self has shattered and they are exhausted by feelings of loss, as they experience losing the secure footing on the path of their life, along with their joy.

Most of us will experience times of stress, anxiety and depression at one time or another, and for most, these emotions pass through quickly, without having a debilitating impact on our lives. With an existential crisis the problem lies in us starting to question our entire existence, which often means that for a period of time we lose the feeling of being grounded and secure in who we are along with our purpose. Although it is fairly common to think about life’s profound questions, the crisis occurs when in asking ourselves these questions we experience breathtaking feelings of fear, loss, sadness and frustration as we struggle to find any satisfactory answers. 

Anyone can experience an existential crisis. The common triggers are age transition, a life-altering or life-threatening event. Any of these affect all dimensions of our lives, the physical, personal, spiritual and social. Irvin Yalom an American psychiatrist, was a pioneer in the area of existential psychotherapy. He stated that mental health problems are often caused by struggles with existence. He identified four main themes that many people struggle with; meaninglessness, Isolation, death and freedom. With the trigger of existential crises often happening after something causes a person to realise their mortality or lose an ideal, it is no wonder that some of my clients are feeling a personal conflict from within, in the midst of this global pandemic. Experiencing an existential crisis is an deeply unsettling experience as it makes us question how we have lived our lives, the decisions we have made, the relationships we have chosen, our values, routines and habits and is often accompanied by questioning the point of life which can rock us to the core.

Each of us will deal with the experience of an existential crisis in different ways and as a therapist I believe we need to have faced our own dark night of the soul in order to be able to fully support someone as they travel through theirs. Yalom poses; “We cannot say to them you and your problems. Instead, we must speak of us and our problems, because our life, our existence, will always be riveted to death, love to loss, freedom to fear, and growth to separation. We are, all of us, in this together.’ (Yalom :14). Suicidal thoughts and feelings are often part of an existential crisis, where we realise that we are not the person we thought we were and will probably never be the person we wanted to become. The feelings can take us to truly dark places as time feels suddenly of the essence and the prospect of recreating the life we truly want for ourselves impossible.

David Wagoner in his poem ‘Lost’ reminds us that when we feel lost in the forest that is our life we need to stop and stand still; 

“Stand still

The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost.

Wherever you are is called ‘Here’,

and you must treat it as a powerful stranger.

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes.

Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you.”

The value of an existential crisis, although deeply uncomfortable, allows us to re-evaluate our lives. It is important to let go of the too big questions and break them down into one step at a time. For those willing to explore all the emotions that emerge it can lead to a revitalised way of being. By addressing our mortality we have the chance to stop and look at our lives in a way that perhaps only a crisis forces us to do. By living existentially we see how life continues on with pain, death, sadness, regret and joy no matter what happens and that there is little point in trying to avoid this truth. Living alongside this, we can start to appreciate the blessings that come from the freedom to make changes and do things differently.

With support we can lean into the fear and loss and breathe life back into our lives knowing that it is up to each of us to give meaning to our lives. As we are all connected in one way or another I receive the gift, as a reminder, that by stretching ourselves in new and creative ways our sense of self and subsequent well being grows. “In choosing to enter fully into each patient’s life, I, the therapist, not only am exposed to the same existential issues as are my patients but must be prepared to examine them with the same rule of inquiry. I must assume that knowing is better than not knowing, venturing than not venturing; and that magic and illusion, however rich, however alluring, ultimately weaken the human spirit.”  (Yalom : 13).  I feel thankful

Yalom, I.D (1989) Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy. London: Penguin Group

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