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Try Existential Therapy for Relief from Difficult Emotions

Should you try existential therapy? Find out the definition, techniques and goals of existential therapy, here at HealthyPlace.

Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy that stems from existentialism as a philosophy. It places emphasis on the human condition as a whole while realizing and accepting human limitations, such as death. Contrary to common misconception, existentialism is not all doom and gloom, and it isn’t only for atheists. Existential therapy can help you deal with the conflicts inherent in being human so that you can influence your own present and future rather than feeling paralyzed (as many people do) by what philosophers call “existential anxiety.”

What Is Existential Therapy?

Existential therapy stems from existentialism, a philosophy proposed mainly by philosophers Nietzsche and Kierkegaard in the early to mid-1800s to understand the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. Ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle had believed that everything has an essence, and our essence exists in us before we are even born, which is the belief that most religion is founded upon. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, modern philosophers began to question the idea that we were born with a pre-determined purpose, and existentialism became a new way of looking at the world and at our place in it.

According to existentialism, there is no pre-determined “essence” in any of us, and the world was not created for a purpose. Existentialists aren’t inherently atheists; many believe in God but do not believe the universe was created for any particular purpose. Instead, existentialist thought is based on the concept that we must write our own essence through how we choose to live. We must decide our own moral code and invent a morality to live by.

We all crave meaning, but many of us struggle to find it. Instead of looking to external forces to create meaning in our lives, existential therapy invites us to look within and determine our own purpose.

What Is the Core of Existential Therapy?

Existential therapy is based upon the belief that all humans experience psychological conflict due to four certain conditions inherent in human existence, known as “givens:”

  • Isolation
  • Meaninglessness
  • Freedom
  • Death

According to existential philosophy, existential anxiety is caused by human confrontation with these givens, which can induce physical, psychological or social symptoms and lead to long-term mental health difficulties. By reducing our awareness of these givens, we may fail to really experience life or make healthy choices about our future.

The goal of existential therapy is, therefore, to help you become more aware of these inevitable "givens" (such as death) without being overwhelmed by them. Existential philosophers believe that people who maintain this balance and properly process their internal conflicts are able to live healthier, more positive lives.

Existential Therapy Techniques and Goals: What Happens in a Session?

Existential therapy aims to help people deal with the inherent struggles of the human condition. As well as helping people deal with the four givens of human life, the philosophy is also grounded in a set of beliefs that can influence how we move through the world. Here are some of the main ideas behind this form of therapy:

  • We create our own meaning in life
  • It is our choices that make us unique, not a predetermined "essence."
  • We are constantly reinventing and remaking ourselves through our choices
  • We are responsible for our own actions
  • Anxiety is a natural feature of life, and we must come to terms with this if we are to live authentically

Existential therapists will use a range of techniques to help you achieve your therapeutic goals. These existential therapy techniques may include:

  • Retrospection: Existential therapy does not dwell on the past. However, you will be encouraged to look back on your past choices to understand the beliefs that led them to take place, as well as the implications of your decisions.
  • Learning to live in the moment: Existential therapists believe that accepting you weren’t designed for any specific purpose can help you live more fully in the present moment.
  • Achieving positive freedom: Because existentialism goes against the idea that our actions and intentions are predetermined, it frees us from feeling obligated to fulfill a higher purpose. Instead, once we have accepted and learned to live with the inevitable anxieties of being human, we are truly free to make our own choices and determine our future.

If you think these existential therapy techniques could help ease your anxiety and encourage you to create meaning in your life, talk to your doctor about finding a local therapist. Bear in mind that existential therapy may not be helpful to you if you are looking for a quick fix for a mental health problem, as it is generally considered an “in-depth” approach that focuses on the overall experience of being human rather than on specific issues.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, October 9). Try Existential Therapy for Relief from Difficult Emotions, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-illness-overview/try-existential-therapy-for-relief-from-difficult-emotions

Last Updated: October 15, 2019
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Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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