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.