Existential Therapy Defined
Existential practices are not new. Indeed, existential philosophy began in the 20th century and in the late 20th century and early 21st century, multiple institutions dedicated to existential psychotherapy as a method to manage mental health conditions were founded in Europe and the US. Existential therapy is developed for individuals who struggle to find the meaning of life:
What is the point, and why are we here?
Existential therapy methods seek to develop an individual emotionally rather than focus solely on symptoms.
Maybe Jean-Paul Sartre, a writer and political activist, and one of the key figures in the philosophy of Existentialism, said it best when he proclaimed, “Unlike other animals, humans are conscious and aware of their own mortality—but that means they have the possibility, and responsibility, of deciding in each moment what to do and how to be.”
Before diving into what existential therapists do, this is an opportune time to look at an example that therapist Orah Krug offers in a recent edition of The Atlantic. Krug had a client who was eating lunch with her daughter when a car crashed into the room. No one was badly hurt, but for years the client couldn’t let go of her anger at the driver—until Krug helped her realize that she wasn’t just angry at the driver. She was mad that she had no control to stop bad things from happening.
Existential Therapists and What They Do
Existential therapists are trained in mental health and often have a background education in philosophy. Licensing requirements vary throughout the country, but many therapists have a graduate degree in psychology or counseling.
Surprisingly, unlike their traditional counterparts, existential therapists are not referred to by their professional title when working with patients. They often prefer that patients call them by their first names to give the treatment a more humanistic framework.
The goal of a good therapist is to help their patients learn to make more willful decisions about how to live. They do this by drawing on creativity and love instead of letting external events determine behavior. Therapists use many approaches, but the major emphasis is on imparting personal responsibility and freedom. Existential Therapists help sufferers find meaning by choosing to focus on acting positively and responsibly, despite anxious or negative thoughts.
Who Benefits from Existential Therapy and When Is It Used?
Existential therapy may benefit people with various symptoms, including, but not limited to:
• post-traumatic stress disorder
Some studies have also found that existential therapy may positively benefit incarcerated people and people living with advanced cancer.
Patients who abuse substances are also good candidates for existential therapy. This therapy helps with self-awareness and self-understanding. Why? Because when a person feels they have no clear direction in life, they may numb the pain through substances, becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs. Some of the symptoms that lead to substance abuse are alienation, nihilism, shame, despair, and depression.
Existential therapy focuses on relationships, caring, commitment, acceptance, and transcendence.
In deciding if existential therapy is right for you, consider the four basic premises:
• We are all humans and have freedom, but with that comes responsibility
• We all struggle with the idea of mortality
• We all feel isolated from others as part of the human experience
• We are all looking for meaning in life
Where to Find an Existential Therapist
Existential therapy is a unique option for individuals looking for an alternative to traditional psychotherapy treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Being human means that life includes a certain level of anxiety, and accepting this is a valuable step toward moving forward to wellness. It’s important to remember that when considering existential therapy.
Existential therapy is not a quick fix, nor is it a lifetime of therapy. It will help you understand that you have small choices to make daily that help determine who you are and where you are going. Those different choices will lead to healthier outcomes.
To look for an existential therapist near you, visit Psychology Today and enter your zip code.