What Is Existential Therapy and How Does It Help Treat Anxiety?

Posted on December 17, 2022

anxious woman in existential therapy session with therapist

Do you ever feel that life has no meaning and you’re just going through the motions with no real purpose? Most people have dealt with their own “existential crisis” — a moment when they question who they are and what they’re doing. Some days it is difficult to see that life has meaning.

Fortunately, finding meaning in life is the core of Existential Therapy.

What is Existential Therapy?

Existential Therapy explores your personal values and sense of self. You are encouraged to use free will to create a life of meaning, or to find meaning in your current life. This form of talk therapy can help you deal with anxiety, manage depression, and find purpose while defying the seeming meaninglessness of life without focusing on the past as in other forms of therapy.

Existential Therapy is based on existential theory, which states that the human condition is one of loneliness, life has no meaning, and death is inevitable. It also claims that human beings have the free will and responsibility to make a meaningful life for themselves by being creative, seeking love, and taking responsibility for life and relationships. Some think that the existential philosophy is depressing, but it can be the opposite by providing people with a sense of control and understanding of their own lives. In Existential Therapy, the therapist creates a safe environment to explore the big questions about life, death, freedom, and what it means to be human, helping the individual find their own answers.

Existential Therapy for Anxiety

The anxieties we feel stem from what existential therapists call intrapsychic conflicts — the deep existential questions we struggle with: Does my life have any meaning? Am I free to do as I choose? What are my ultimate goals? Am I responsible for my actions? Who am I and how can I remain true to myself?

We all have some degree of existential anxiety, which may make us lose touch with our ability to make changes and feel powerless to prevent unpleasant outside events from happening. However, we can reduce our level of anxiety by facing our fears and acting in positive ways.

The therapist’s role is to foster personal responsibility for making decisions, not to label symptoms or treat a “condition,” collaborating with the client as they create a more meaningful life. Therapists help clients deal with anxiety by thinking and acting responsibly, and confronting negative internal thoughts, rather than focusing on uncontrollable outside events.

What is the Goal of Existential Therapy

The therapy process usually includes discussing present experiences in depth to reveal the existential ideas behind them; encouraging living in the moment and practicing mindfulness; exploring relationships and how they affect the person; discussing life’s purpose instead of defining goals and outcomes; trying new experiences to build a meaningful life; and addressing anxieties, fears, and hopes about life’s purpose. All discussions between the patient and therapist should be fully open, supportive, and without judgment. Any negative feelings and inner conflicts are considered good reactions that should be explored instead of eliminated.

The goal of existential therapy is not to eliminate all anxiety. Our anxieties motivate us to do the things we need to do to survive, yet too much anxiety can paralyze us. Existential therapy seeks balance.

What is Existential Therapy Used For?

Existential therapy can be used to treat psychological issues including excessive anxiety, PTSD, apathy, shame, addiction, depression, guilt, anger, resentment, purposelessness, psychosis, violence, hopelessness/helplessness because of uncontrollable circumstances, and low self-esteem in people of all ages.

Benefits of existential therapy include:

  • Improved mental health as you learn to deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. By developing strategies to identify and overcome fears, you gain a greater sense of personal responsibility and self-determination, and an understanding of your role in your own recovery.
  • A deeper understanding of yourself, your values, your beliefs, and your goals. You’ll learn how relationships have shaped who you are and affect your life. This should all lead to increased openness to life’s opportunities, and improved confidence and self-esteem as you become more comfortable with who you are.

Existential therapy may not be the right choice for those who prefer firm, clear, and structured plans or are experiencing a specific issue that requires quick resolution. Alternatives to consider are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure and Response Prevention, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which provide a more structured experience with measurable goals.

Existential therapy encourages people to define how life could be meaningful to them, whether through change or acceptance. It is an exploration of a patient’s life and experiences, discovering purpose, meaning, and identity.

Why Choose Rising Phoenix?

Rising Phoenix Wellness Services is a licensed mental health and substance use disorder Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona. We created our addiction and mental health treatment program to offer a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are embraced, not judged, throughout their recovery process.

We offer programming that is based on Integrity, Innovation, Confident Humility, and Mindful Leadership. Our Mission is to help people recognize the unique value of their life and improve their overall health and wellness.

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