By Wendy Wisner, Contributor
I recently turned forty, and as soon as I blew out the candles, I waited for “the thing” to happen. You know what I’m talking about, right? The infamous “midlife crisis.” The mother of all existential crises. A force to be reckoned with.
Knock on wood — I seem to have gotten only a mild version of a midlife existential crisis. Well, at least so far. I do find myself asking all kinds of questions I never asked before, like “Is my life now the best it’s ever going to get?” and “What if I die never accomplishing anything better than this?”
Sometimes I find myself laughing at these questions (humor is good for us all!) and other times, I feel myself spiraling into anxiety, and I wonder if my stress is going to get the better of me one of these days.
Your forties are not the only time you might have an existential crisis. Life is full of times you begin to ask yourself questions like “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in life?”
The term existential crisis was derived from the work of psychoanalyst and developmental theorist Erik Erikson, who referred to an existential crisis as an “identity crisis.” Questions of identity are defining characteristics of an existential crisis. During an existential crisis, you find yourself pondering who you are, whether you’ve accomplished enough, your place in the world, and the meaning of life.
In a paper about existential crises published in Behavioral Development Bulletin, researcher Mary Andrews describes existential crises as producing specific psycho-emotional symptoms, the most notable being anxiety.
“Existential crises occur during confusing and high-anxiety periods,” writes Andrews. “People who are in the midst of an existential crisis will experience high anxiety levels.”
Andrews notes that for this anxiety to dissolve, the crisis has to be “acknowledged, addressed, or resolved.” In other words, you can’t just push your existential crisis aside and hope it will work itself out on its own. You need to address the questions troubling you. If you don’t, you might sink into a period of depression or anxiety that will be harder to resolve than the existential crisis itself.
It’s important to look at an existential crisis not as a negative thing, says Andrews, but as an opportunity to practice introspection and take some time to reevaluate your life — which is definitely a much more positive and refreshing spin than is typical when discussing existential crises!
There is no exact age or time in your life when you are guaranteed to have an existential crisis. Everyone develops on their own timetable, and experiences different life challenges. However, there are some more typical times you might experience an existential crisis, according to Andrews. She defines three typical existential crisis periods: the sophomore crisis, the adult existential crisis, and the later existential crisis.
The sophomore crisis usually takes place sometime in your teens or early 20s, as you transition into adulthood. It’s defined by questions of what career path you should choose, what it takes to form a successful romantic relationship, and general questions about self-image and identity. It can cause feelings of despair and emotional uproar, especially if the sufferer finds themselves unable to resolve these questions.
The adult existential crisis generally occurs in your late 20s and is similar to the sophomore existential crisis in that you are still wrestling with questions of career, relationships, and identity. Now, you may be facing more complex questions, like whether or not you want to have kids, get married, have a religious affiliation. You may question your sexuality, your place in the world, and where you fall on the moral/ethical/political scale.
Then, of course, is the later existential crisis. This happens in the second half of your adult life, after your career path is chosen, and you are likely settled down with a romantic partner. You will still find yourself questioning career and relationships, but with a newfound awareness of your mortality. You’ll ask yourself questions about whether this career or relationship is actually the legacy you want to leave behind. You’ll wrestle with mistakes you’ve made in the past, and wonder if you are running out of time to make them right.
Again, as stressful as existential crises are, they are not something you want to brush aside or ignore. The difficult questions you are grappling with come about because of specific reasons, and it is healthy to work through them as you transition through various life phases. Existential crises can be viewed as opportunities for self-growth and maybe even reinventing certain aspects of your life.
However, sometimes self-doubt and feelings of uncertainty can get the better of you and you find yourself dealing with depression or anxiety as a result of an existential crisis.
A trusted friend, a wise elder, or a career coach may help you work through your existential crisis. However, finding a supportive therapist to help you through this time can make a huge difference — it can allow you to turn a tough moment into one of positive transformation.
No one said having an existential crisis was going to be a walk in the park, but when approached from the right perspective, you can come out of one stronger, bolder, more self-confident, and with a brand new perspective on life.
Originally published on Talkspace.
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