Existential Therapy: Navigating Life’s Inherent Challenges


Key Concepts of Existential Therapy

Existential therapy is a therapeutic approach to help individuals confront and understand existence’s inherent challenges and uncertainties. It allows patients to create meaning in their lives by focusing on choices they can make while taking a humanistic approach to being. One of the main goals of existential therapy is to help the person explore their lived experiences in an honest, open way so that they can gain a better understanding of their life’s meaning, thus reducing the symptoms of anxiety surrounding life and death. Or, as Dr. Louise Sundararajan puts it on the American Psychiatric Association website, “It asks about the meaning of life.”

Some of the existential therapy key concepts include understanding the freedom to choose our actions to affect the outcome of our lives (and the inherent responsibility we must take for our wins and losses) while learning that intrapersonal relationships are important and can teach us a lot about our own desires and values.

This therapy technique for mental health helps patients achieve a sense of meaning in their lives, reducing the desolation that a sense of meaninglessness can inspire. The goal is to help the patient achieve peace of mind and a sense of control and understanding over their lives. 

Techniques that Drive Transformation

The most effective existential therapy techniques are delivered as conversations rather than a teacher/student-type interaction. Different California mental health treatment centers will take different treatment approaches, some of which may include:

  • Empathetic reflection: Acknowledging the emotions of everybody involved in the event rather than just those you were experiencing, giving you a more unbiased view of the situation.
  • Socratic questioning: A thoughtful, disciplined dialogue designed to provoke thought, with both the therapist and patient asking and answering, providing a personalized and open-ended conversation with no pre-defined goal that can delve deep into existential meaning.
  • Active listening: Remaining fully engaged and seeking to understand more by asking questions like “What did you think about that?” or “How did you feel?” to explore subjects on a deeper level.
  • Developing self-awareness: Noticing what happens within your body and thoughts and focusing on changing your reactions.

The Aims and Objectives: Goals of Existential Therapy

The goals of existential therapy are to help individuals find purpose in their lives, confront their own mortality (and the mortality of others), and embrace freedom. Clients can explore their lived experiences more clearly and honestly while confronting the big questions in life. This will help them to consider their own ways of being, help them to take responsibility for the ways they have chosen to live their lives, and encourage them to take a more meaningful path in the future. 

Existential Therapy in Practice

Real-world Examples

Please see the following existential therapy examples for a deeper understanding of what these sessions may look like and their potential outcomes:

Some may hate their job and feel hopeless about the future, turning to therapy for help. Through talks about their goals and their (lack of) human connections, along with learning about taking personal responsibility for their future, they may gain insight into what would give their life meaning and steps to make meaningful changes for the better.

A person whose spouse has passed away feels betrayed and devastated by their loss. They may speak at length with their therapist about how to return a sense of meaning to their life, and through exploring their own lived experience and their limitations as a human, they may be better able to accept the reality of death.

Somebody who feels overwhelming anxiety and stress in their everyday life may find existential therapy comforting, as they honestly holistically speak about life and existence.

Exercises to Enhance Self-Awareness

Some existential therapy exercises that therapists can use to help their clients confront and understand their existential concerns include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on how thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes affect how you feel and act.
  • Person-centered somatic therapy uses mind-body exercises to relieve tensions while gaining an understanding of how your thoughts and feelings can impact physical wellness.
  • Gestalt therapy focuses on the present moment rather than delving into the past, so you can work on being more aware of emotions and sensations in the body, achieving balance through unconditional acceptance of the now, and learning new ways to react to stimuli.
  • Daseinsanalysis (existentialist psychoanalysis) helps you grasp your mortality and understand the paradox of being around people constantly but alone with yourself internally.
  • Logotherapy uses existential analysis to help you understand that everyone can find meaning in all we do and our stance when faced with life’s difficulties.
  • Existential phenomenology looks into the ways our experiences shape us, yet we are free to change ourselves and the world in which we live.
  • Phenomenological psychotherapy with psychologists understanding circumstances that have happened from the patient’s point of view to avoid speculation based on their own lived experiences and worldviews.

Finding the Right Therapist

While you can search “existential therapy near me” online to find your therapist, it is important to find someone who is a good fit for you, especially when discussing existential matters. For example, if you are an atheist, you would not want to discuss the meaning of life with a Christian-leaning person.

Find out what therapy they offer and set up an initial “meet and greet” appointment to see if you feel comfortable with that person. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel right, and that is OK. You can try again. You may also want to ensure the therapist accepts your health insurance or find somebody in-network with your insurance group.

existential therapy techniques

Frequently Asked Questions About Existential Therapy:

What distinguishes existential therapy from other therapeutic approaches?

Existential therapy focuses less on diagnosing and treating mental illness and more on the patient’s philosophical worldview and understanding of their own freedom to shape their life’s meaning.

How long does it typically take for individuals to see results with existential therapy?

It is not a short-term treatment, but the length of treatment depends on the individual, sometimes taking 12 sessions, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.

Are there any potential risks or challenges associated with existential therapy?

Yes, it could be seen as pessimistic, as it encourages individuals to embrace suffering. It is also an intellectual methodology, which may not work for everybody. People with a religious background may also find it unhelpful, as it discourages patients from following a religion (or one person) without question.

How do therapists incorporate existential exercises into sessions?

Opening up a dialogue, using the Socratic method of questioning, and allowing the patient to speak without judgment will help. The therapist may integrate mindfulness techniques, incorporate humanistic approaches, and work to help the patient focus on their personal responsibility when making decisions affecting their life.

What type of training do existential therapists undergo?

Most existential therapists will have at least a graduate degree in psychology or counseling and have done supervised fieldwork in existential therapy with experienced mentors. Most will also have a background in philosophy, many with an undergraduate degree in that field.

Is existential therapy suitable for everyone, or are there specific criteria?

It is best for patients trying to find meaning in their lives or those with significant obstacles to overcome. It is not for people with immediate mental health care concerns or those in crisis. It is also unsuitable for people looking to analyze their past.

How can one prepare for an existential therapy session?

Try to come in with an open mind and a willingness to have a frank, honest conversation with your therapist. Be prepared to explore big ideas and question yourself deeply while facing topics like mortality, alienation, and freedom, and know that nothing will be “solved” in one or two sessions; it is an ongoing process.

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