Existential Crisis and Addiction


Existential Crisis and Addiction

Table of Contents

What is an Existential Crisis?

It can be healthy to question the deeper meaning of existence—why we’re here on earth and our ultimate purpose.

Wondering about your place in the cosmos is normal. However, suppose this goes on too long without finding satisfactory answers to your questions. In that case, it’s possible to fall into a dark emotional abyss that may be difficult to climb out of.

This, in a nutshell, is what an existential crisis is.

During addiction treatment at our facility, we see many of our clients facing existential crisis. This article will also discuss the link between addiction and existential crisis.

Shattered Worldview

It’s when your worldview—the thing that gives your life meaning and structure—gets shattered into a million glittering fragments. An existential crisis could happen in other ways besides pondering the big questions. For example, some people mistakenly try to block their negative emotions, thinking that this will help them to better experience the positive ones.

This could lead to not validating the full spectrum of the emotional range. Leading to feeling hollow inside. This, in turn, could cause the person to question their life’s value.

Feelings of Inauthenticity

Other people might be plunged into an existential crisis by lingering feelings of inauthenticity—not feeling true to themselves.

Realization of Death

An existential crisis could be sparked by the sudden realization that one day, you’ll die. From time immemorial, human beings have asked themselves:

“If I die, what’s the point of my existence?”

Many profoundly spiritual people don’t seem to struggle with the big questions because their deep abiding faith provides them with a spiritual framework into which they can insert meaning. However, the loss of religious conviction can trigger a crisis.

Collective Trauma

Collective trauma—like the ongoing pandemic—can lead to having one too.

If you receive the unhappy news of a life-threatening illness, either within yourself or someone you love, you could feel this way. A loss of connectedness might trigger a period of existential despair. This can cause feelings of floating aimlessly on an alien sea.

Symptoms of an Existential Crisis

Here are some of the symptoms of an existential crisis:

Obsessive interest in asking the "big questions"

Feelings of overwhelming loneliness

No motivation

Suicidal ideation

No energy

Chronic feelings of emptiness

Existential Crisis Questions

People undergoing an existential crisis struggle with questions like:

What is my life purpose?

Is there anything after death?

Is there a God?

Why do people suffer?

Do I have free will?

They feel overwhelming anxiety when they fail to come up with answers. This existential angst builds up and contributes to feelings of isolation and loss of purpose.

Overlapping Mental Health Conditions as Risk Factors


Existential dread can turn into a long-standing anxiety disorder.

And, as most people know, some people with anxiety disorders try to self-medicate the anxiety away.

According to a study in Alcohol Research and Health, about 18% of people who have an anxiety disorder also have substance use disorder.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Lots of human beings all over the planet grapple with questions about the nature of existence.

However, for those who are tormented by a type of OCD known as existential OCD, these questions can be overwhelming to an alarming degree. That’s because the questions become so repetitive and intrusive, they interfere with an individual’s ability to live a useful life.

Overlapping Life Events as Risk Factors

Many things happen in your life that can predispose you to an existential crisis. Here are a few of them:


Existential grief is a loss that causes an individual to feel they no longer have a place in the world. It can cause someone to lose their faith in God or another higher power and think that their life has been stripped of all meaning.

This loss can be a beloved pet, a significant other, a child, a close friend, or another person who meant a lot to the individual.

For those with a substance use disorder, grief can trigger a relapse.


Trauma is when an unpleasant event like an accident or natural disaster leaves an indelible mark on your psyche. Shock and denial often follow in the aftermath of a traumatic event, as well as symptoms such as:


Volatile emotions

Impaired ability to form relationships

Repressed memories

A sense of helplessness

Hyper-vigilance (the state of being abnormally alert to potential danger)

Dissociated mental states



Trauma can occur on a large scale, such as the pandemic that’s currently raging or a devastating wildfire. It can also happen on a smaller scale, such as the death of a child.

For the trauma sufferer, the psychological wound can be so profound, life loses all meaning.


A painful divorce can cause a person to become dissatisfied with life, especially if the marriage was a long one.

This is because an individual might question their identity after the ending of a long relationship. For example, a newly divorced individual might feel that they only existed in the context of their marriage.

And now that the relationship is over, they no longer have a self apart from their marital union. This could make them feel disconnected from reality.

Job Issues

For some people, losing a job is like losing who they are.

If your identity is inextricably intertwined with your work role, feeling this way may cause an existential crisis.

Diagnosis of Serious Illness

Being diagnosed with a terminal illness is never easy for anyone.

For some, it could trigger an existential depression, as they wonder what (if anything) comes after death.

Existential Depression in Gifted Children

Many children are exceedingly perceptive and have an insatiable curiosity.

Unfortunately, these are the same personality characteristics that predispose them to existential depression. This makes them more likely to question societal norms and have a burning passion for social justice—even at a young age.

Many of them have an all-encompassing love for humanity. When they see rampant injustice, they feel heartbroken when other people don’t seem to have the depth of concern they do.

Gifted children might feel that there’s nobody on the planet who’s like them, and what society deems essential might seem shallow and superficial to them. They often have a finely-honed hypocrisy detector, and the insincerity of the world pains them.

Even five-year-old children have been known to suffer from acute existential depression when they realize that they’re mortal.

Even the demise of a much-loved family pet can trigger such questions.

Young People’s Existential Concerns and Club Drug Abuse

Irvin Yalom, the celebrated American existential psychologist, calls these the “four givens.”

Those who failed to get answers to all their aching questions about life suffered an overwhelming emptiness inside. Some of these individuals turn to illicit substances to numb their pain.

Being in the company of friends when they got high further took the edge off some of their existential angst by providing them with a sense of belonging to a community of sorts.

Another existential concern young people struggle with is trying to fit in with the rest of society. At the same time, they want to forge a unique personal identity and not get lost in the crowd. This seeming dichotomy pulls them in two different directions, often causing unbearable psychological distress.

Interventions that focus on existential struggles will be far more effective than those that only focus on avoiding substance use.

How to Deal with an Existential Crisis

For years, men have died from suicide at more than three times the rate of women. One of the reasons is that males are more resistant to seeking mental health services because they either don’t believe they need help or are too embarrassed to ask for it.

So, instead of getting counseling, they stoically suffer.

However, there’s been a marked increase in the suicide rate among middle-aged American men, making this an existential crisis of staggering proportions. In this demographic, the suicide rate jumped by 43% from 1999 to 2014.

There’s not only one cause that can explain this shocking increase. It’s likely due to a bunch of factors. The economic stresses of the last ten years or so, such as drastic cutbacks on corporate employees and lingering recessions, have disproportionately affected middle-aged men.

Another cause is the lack of well-paying jobs for middle-aged men without degrees. This increasingly happens as old sectors of the economy disintegrate, and new ones take their place.

Opioid Overdose

There’s also the dramatic increase in death by opioid overdose. Men aged 55 years or older going into treatment for first-time opioid use increased 8% each year from 2004 to 2012. And then, between 2013 to 2015, it skyrocketed to 25% each year.

Most troublingly, heroin use was to blame for the doubling of opioid treatment admissions during this time.

One of the most tragic consequences of prescription opioid misuse by middle-aged men is increased suicide risk.

Are Drug Use and Increased Suicide Rates an Existential Crisis for Middle-Aged Men?

One way to get through a debilitating existential crisis is with existential psychotherapy.

It helps people discover how joyous life can be when they’re better able to manage their existential despair. This type of therapy teaches how not to be overly obsessed with your own mortality. Once this is achieved, you have the freedom to make new life choices, unencumbered by the dread fear of death.

It has its roots in logotherapy. It was developed by Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, and psychotherapist. Frankl wanted to help people find meaning in their lives.

He believed this was an individual’s primary purpose.

Practitioners of existential therapy seek to help their patients find meaning in their existence despite their struggles with the four givens. If they’re successful, they can live authentic lives and make choices from places of positivity—not fear.

If your existential crisis is leading you to depression and anxiety, seek out medical attention right away.

Addressing Existential Crisis During Addiction Treatment

An existential crisis is when questions about life, the universe, and humanity’s role in the scheme of things become so important to the individual that deep psychological pain occurs when there are no answers. And when this happens, some use illicit drugs to numb themselves to the profound pain they’re feeling.

Counselors using an existential approach to treat addiction will help clients explore their existential issues in a therapeutic setting.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an excellent treatment modality for combatting existential depression.

It started with the brilliant work of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck during the middle of the twentieth century. It’s a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy that helps you to recognize your negative thought patterns so you can change them.

Instead of endlessly delving into your past, CBT equips you with powerful tools so you can transform your present reality.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is another effective strategy for reducing existential depression.

When you engage in mindfulness practice, you observe your own internal dialogue. To do this, you must cultivate what the Buddhists call the “witnessing presence.” This means that you watch your mind and all its ongoing thought activity from a detached place.

This helps you disidentify from your thoughts, making them much less overwhelming.

Discussing Existential Crisis During 12-Step Meetings

12-step meetings can be a powerful way to help you address an existential crisis.

That’s because the collective sharing process of a typical 12-step program will help you relieve feelings of existential despair and avoid the relapse that might otherwise ensue.

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