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What Does It Really Mean to Have an 'Existential Crisis'?

Path in the North York Moors National Park
Sometimes, life can seem bleak when you're having an existential crisis, but finding meaning can help. David Madison/Getty Images

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In 2003, Jay Williams was living his dream. After winning a National Championship as a star basketball player at Duke University, he was recruited by the Chicago Bulls. There were millions in his bank account, the reward for a lifetime of hard work, dedication and sacrifice.

But all that changed one June morning, when Williams hopped on his brand-new Yamaha R6 motorcycle and revved its powerful engine. Thinking he was in neutral, he wasn't ready when the bike shot forward and sent him careening into a utility pole at 60 mph. After the accident, Williams lay on the ground unable to feel his left leg, and according to The New York Times, screamed, "You threw it all away! You threw it all away!"

What followed were years of excruciating operations and physical therapy to repair his crushed leg, and a crippling depression that left the former world-class athlete contemplating suicide. Basketball was the one thing that had given his life meaning, the one thing that defined him as a human being, and now it was gone. So why go on living?

This, my friends, is an existential crisis.

An existential crisis is different than anxiety over a really difficult decision ("Do I want to major in economics or musical theatre?") or even a case of major depression in which nothing seems to interest or motivate you. A true existential crisis, explains Clay Routledge, a psychological researcher and professor at North Dakota State University, is having your worldview — the thing that gives your life meaning and structure — completely shattered.

"Most people generally believe their lives have a purpose and a meaning," says Routledge. "An existential crisis is when that belief collapses."

Other examples of situations in which a person might experience an existential crisis include: losing faith in a religious tradition that has guided all of your decisions and given you meaning; losing a loved one (parent, spouse, child) around whom you had built your existence; failing at a career in which you had invested all of your time and energy.

An existential crisis is not a psychological diagnosis like depression or bipolar disorder. You won't find it in the DSM-5 and you can't get medication to treat it. That's because existential therapy, a therapeutic tradition grounded in the teachings of existential philosophy, has not been fully accepted by the psychological and medical community.

What Is Existentialism?

Existential philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre taught that in the face of death, any pursuit can ultimately be viewed as meaningless. It is therefore up to the individual to be the architect of his or her own meaning by living "authentically" as their true self. Sartre wrote that humans are "condemned to be free," meaning that we are alone among creation in recognizing our mortality, but also have the ability to decide who we want to be.

One of the hallmarks of existentialism is the concept of existential angst, the natural byproduct of acknowledging the futility of existence while still seeking to forge meaning in our daily lives. Existential angst is seen as part of the normal human condition. An existential crisis, on the other hand, presents a serious challenge.

Let's go back to the example of Jay Williams. This was a man whose entire identity had been erased in an instant, and whose greatest source of happiness, meaning and financial security was likely gone forever.

Williams had a choice to make: He could either see no purpose in continuing to live a life without playing professional basketball, or he could attempt to find meaning elsewhere. This is the defining moment of an existential crisis. Do you give into the despair or do you use it as an opportunity to reinvent yourself?

"In a crisis of meaning, like any major life disruption, there's the opportunity for renewal," says Routledge.

After trying unsuccessfully to relaunch his basketball career, Williams found a second passion in sports broadcasting. He wasn't an overnight success, but applying the same strong work ethic that made him into a premier athlete — and enabled him to graduate from college in just three years — Williams moved up the ranks to become one of ESPN's top on-air college basketball analysts.

Jay Williams, ESPN
ESPN College Gameday host Jay Williams offers commentary prior to the game between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the Kansas Jayhawks in Lubbock, Texas in 2018. Williams suffered an existential crisis when his basketball career ended due to a motorcycle accident.
John Weast/Getty Images

Overcoming an Existential Crisis

In existential therapy, also known as existential-humanistic therapy, people with an existential crisis are taught to acknowledge the four "givens" of the human condition: death, meaning, isolation and freedom. The work of existential therapy is to acknowledge your inability to change those givens, while working to discover intrinsic sources of motivation and meaning.

Throughout his existential crisis, Williams received unwavering support from his mother, Althea, and from his former college coaches and teammates. Routledge says that when he asks Americans to list the things that give them meaning, "the vast majority say families and close relationships. Those identities, our relational roles, seem to be particularly central."

Routledge's findings were echoed by a Pew Research Center survey which found that no matter their political affiliation or socioeconomic status, 69 percent of Americans responded that family provides them with a sense of meaning. The next most popular response was "career" with 34 percent.

Routledge worries that several social trends in America may be converging to create a society-wide existential crisis. He points to the alarmingly high suicide rates among all ages and ethnicities as a symptom of a culture that's losing touch with the things that traditionally gave us meaning: marriage, children, religion, even close personal relationships. And when loneliness and depression strike, too many individuals are left without an "immune system" of meaning that protects them from giving up on it all.

Routledge isn't the first to identify this existential malady of the modern world. Pioneering existential therapists like Viktor Frankl, the author of the stirring 1946 Holocaust memoir "Man's Search for Meaning," believed that industrial and technological innovation has left us with too much free time and not enough sources of lasting meaning. "Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression, and addiction," Frankl wrote, "are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them."

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