What Is Existential Therapy?

Existential therapy is a type of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, in which a person is encouraged to use their free will to create a life of meaning or to find meaning in their current life. It's based on existential theory, which states that because life is meaningless, people are free to create their own. Existential therapy encourages being authentic and creative, seeking love, and taking responsibility for your life and relationships.

Read on to learn about existential theory and how this therapy can help people.

Close up of man's hands during therapy

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What Is Existential Theory?

Existential therapy is based on existential theory. It states that the human condition is one of loneliness, life has no meaning, and death is inevitable. Despite this, existential theory also claims a human being has the free will to create a meaningful life.

 The 4 Existential 'Givens'

Existential theory is the idea that there are four "givens" of human existence that cause inner anguish. Psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom labeled these four givens in 1980.

The four "givens" are:

  • Freedom: Human beings have the freedom and responsibility to create meaningful lives.
  • Isolation: Human beings are ultimately alone.
  • Meaninglessness: Life can feel meaningless.
  • Death: No one can escape death.

Why Am I Here?

According to existentialism, the human condition might be lonely, meaningless, and temporary, but we have the free will to face it and find meaning regardless. Existentialism seeks to answer the questions "What is the meaning of my life and death?" and "Why am I here?" Within this framework, it is natural to feel afraid or isolated, but using free will can help reconcile these feelings.

What Is Existential Therapy?

Some therapists of this method do not consider existential therapy a particular method of therapy. Instead, they treat it as a way of approaching therapy. In existential therapy, a person addresses the inner conflict caused by human solitude, the feeling that life has no meaning, and the inevitability of death.

Existential therapy emphasizes that humans have the freedom and a responsibility to find meaning in life despite their circumstances.

What Is Humanistic Therapy?

Existential therapy is a type of humanistic therapy, which rejects the idea that a therapist is an authority figure who diagnoses or "cures" a person. The humanistic therapist operates from a place of believing in human potential and the free will to create a meaningful life. Humanistic therapy sessions focus on the present day, what the patient wants to become, and the life they want to create. The therapist is a collaborator in this experience.

How It Works

Existential therapy is not about labeling or treating a person. Instead, the therapist is a "fellow traveler" collaborating with the person as they create a meaningful life.

The existential therapy process can include:

  • Discussing present experiences in depth until the existential ideas behind them are revealed
  • Encouraging presence in the moment and practicing mindfulness, or experiencing the moment fully
  • Exploring relationships with the larger world and how they impact the person, including cultural norms and society
  • Focusing on the exploration of life's purpose instead of defining goals and outcomes
  • Working toward changing behavior that causes inner conflict or embracing the self as is
  • Emphasizing creativity and the responsibility to build a meaningful life
  • Addressing anxieties, fears, and hopes about life's purpose

What It Can Help With

Existential therapy can help with:

  • The aftermath of shocking events
  • Feelings of hopelessness or anxiety because of uncontrollable circumstances
  • Self-empowerment
  • Fear and anxiety, including death anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of hopelessness and despair

Existential Therapy and God

Existential therapy supports the idea of human free will, including the freedom to explore spirituality. However, existentialism itself believes that human beings have free will to act without "God."


Since existential theory can be applied to several types of therapy, those who believe in a higher power could also benefit from some of its ideas. However, the emphasis on free will could clash with some religious beliefs in which "God" is a larger authority than the self.


Techniques

Existential therapy techniques include:

  • Open dialogue between patient and therapist without judgment: The relationship between patient and therapist should be flexible, accepting, and supportive.
  • Mindfulness: This involves focusing on the present moment while building a meaningful future.
  • Encouraging patients to remain present by asking questions about their experiences: This encourages experiencing life fully and authentically.
  • Treating all experiences as equally important in their potential for meaning: Existential therapy avoids the idea of ranking experiences in order of importance.
  • Treating negative feelings and inner conflict: In existential therapy, these are considered good reactions that should be explored instead of quickly cured.
  • Encouraging exploration of new ideas and experiences: Trying new things can help a patient build their future on their own terms.
  • Discussing interactions with the larger world: This helps patients find their place in society or culture.

Who It Benefits

Existential therapy can benefit:

  • People of all ages in group and individual settings
  • People of diverse backgrounds who want to address how society impacts their lives
  • People managing depression or anxiety with or without medication
  • Trauma victims and others who have experienced difficult life circumstances
  • People living with anxiety about the larger world

Existential Therapy and the Now

Existential therapy emphasizes working within the present while building a future. In that sense, it is more helpful for people who wish to change current behaviors while developing their potential. Existential therapy might not be helpful for someone looking for psychoanalysis based on the past.

Who Should Avoid It

Existential therapy might not be effective for people with immediate psychiatric needs that require medical intervention. Patients who want to analyze the past might also not benefit from existential therapy since it is more concerned with the present.

Existential Therapy: One of Many Options

If existential therapy or its techniques don't seem helpful to your concerns, it's important to remember there are many types of therapy available for whatever you're dealing with. It's normal to interview a few specialists before choosing the right fit, and it's also acceptable for your therapeutic needs to change over time.

Summary

Existential therapy is based on existential theory, which states that life has no meaning and that people must use their free will to create meaning for themselves. It can help people who may be dealing with feelings of hopelessness and involves mindfulness, open dialogue with a therapist, and exploring negative emotions.

A Word From Verywell

It's only human to wonder about your place in the world and to feel anxious about the possibilities, both positive and negative. Finding meaning in your life is a valuable pursuit, despite the fear it can bring. If you're feeling hopeless, afraid, lonely, or trapped in your circumstances, a therapist well versed in existential theory might be able to support you on the path to meaning.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some examples of existential therapy questions?

    An existential therapist might ask you what you think makes life meaningful. They could also ask how everyday events make you feel to encourage you to be present and authentic. An existential therapist might further ask what you can do with the circumstances you're living in to add more creativity or meaning to your life.

  • Who was the founder of existential therapy?

    There are several psychotherapists who have contributed to existential therapy. In 1946, Victor Frankl wrote "Man's Search for Meaning" after having survived concentration camps during the Holocaust. Frankl introduced the world to logotherapy, the idea that human beings can find meaning in their lives no matter their circumstances. American psychologist Rollo May studied in Europe and brought ideas about existential psychology to the United States in the late 1950s. In 1980, Irvin Yalom named the four "givens" of freedom, isolation, meaninglessness, and death that existential theory is based on.

  • What’s the difference between existential therapy and existential philosophy?

    Existentialism as a philosophy defines the human state as one of isolation and inner conflict at knowing death is inevitable. Existentialism also emphasizes human free will to create a meaningful life. Existential therapy applies these ideas to encourage people to define how life could be meaningful to them, whether that's through change or acceptance. Existential therapy focuses on reconciling the difficulty of life so that inner conflict can be managed and accepted.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Neha Kashyap
Neha is a New York-based health journalist who has written for WebMD, ADDitude, HuffPost Life, and dailyRx News. Neha enjoys writing about mental health, elder care, innovative health care technologies, paying for health care, and simple measures that we all can take to work toward better health.