Existential Psychotherapy 101: What Is It and How Does It Work?


The human mind is a profound, complex mystery that varies from person to person. When psychological issues arise, there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to everyone’s problems.

There are dozens of different types of therapy to treat people, from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to dialectical behavior therapy to exposure therapy. But one lesser-known type is existential psychotherapy.

In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about existential psychotherapy so you can decide if it’s right for you.

Keep reading to learn more.

What Is Existential Theory?

To understand what existential psychotherapy is, it’s essential to understand what existential theory is first.

The existential theory is a philosophy that goes back centuries. It was developed by philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzche. They believed that the only way to understand your own identity was to gain self-awareness and self-respect.

Their teachings state that because life and people’s environments were constantly changing, the only way people needed to continuously evolve was to keep up with their surroundings. The only constant in a person’s life was a person’s responsibility to decide how to live their life.

In simple terms, it embraces the ideas of personal freedom and choice. People need to choose their own existence and meaning.

What Is Existential Psychotherapy?

In the mid-20th century, the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl developed logotherapy, which would be the precursor to today’s version of existential therapy. It focused on helping people find the meaning of life.

In more recent years, psychologist Rollo May and psychiatrist Irvin Yalom have developed existential psychotherapy further.

Yalom established four of the essential issues that prevent people from living a fulfilled life. These are:

  • Death
  • Meaninglessness
  • Isolation
  • Freedom to make the right choices

This form of therapy uses a positive approach to these capacities while understanding people’s human limitations.

The Four Psychotherapy ‘Givens’

Any sort of confrontation with the four givens (death, isolation, meaningless, and freedom) is referred to as existential anxiety.

Any of these anxieties can lead to problems with a person’s physical, social, psychological, and spiritual awareness, which can lead to serious long-term problems.

Let’s look at an example. The knowledge that one of our loved ones will die at some point can cause deep anxiety in a person. This can lead them to ignore the reality of death in the world.

But this ignorance of death can lead to poor decision-making of things that can actually be beneficial to your life. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people that are overly conscious of death can be led to psychosis or neurosis.

Existential psychotherapy attempts to bring a balance between the two by allowing a person to be aware of the situation without becoming overwhelmed. Those that have a healthy balance between the two can make positive decisions.

Other examples of ideas that might bring existential anxiety include:

  • The threat of isolation
  • Feeling meaningless in life
  • The weighty responsibility of making decisions

Therapists can help these patients through these issues.

How Does Existential Psychotherapy Work?

Today, an existential psychotherapist helps their patients by allowing them to embrace the choices they make. They allow their patients to focus on possibilities in the future rather than the past.

These therapists urge their patients towards positivity, love, creativity, and other things to make decisions about their future. They also help them learn how to think and act without getting anxious or fear of “messing up” their life.

Their goal is to help their patients find meaning while dealing with natural fears and worries. Successful patients can live their lives genuinely with self-motivation and self-respect. They make choices from a place of positivity rather than fear.

What Are Existential Therapy Techniques?

There are several standard techniques used in existential therapy. This includes:

  • Talking
  • Listening
  • Answering questions
  • Engaging with a therapist over long periods

However, therapists don’t focus on a symptom like anxiety. Instead, they’ll focus on the person as a whole.

Let’s look at an example of a patient who deals with addiction. An existential therapist might suggest that they have fear and anxiety about one of the four essential givens.

But as they looked for a solution to their problem, they didn’t find something that made them feel reassured. Because of this, they turned to substance use.

In this situation, the therapist might have their patient face this anxiety face-to-face. They would dig deep to find the root of the anxieties and fears that they find so overwhelming.

During this time, they might also recommend that patients try new positive experiences. This can have to do with their spirituality, relationships, courage, and more. By introducing positive affirmation, they hope to guide them toward responsibility for their thoughts, and hopefully, the end of substance abuse.

Benefits of Existential Psychotherapy

There are several ways that existential therapy can help patients that are dealing with issues. Let’s take a look at a few.

Increase Self-Awareness to Allow Authentic Living

A common issue is that people aren’t aware of the choices that they make. Existential counseling and psychotherapy help people find the freedom and awareness to make decisions.

It gives them “inner authority,” which lets them be more honest with themselves to make genuine decisions.

Take Responsibility for their Decisions

Not only do therapists help their patients gain the freedom to make choices, but they help them see the consequences of their actions. It allows people to become the “authors of their lives.”

Find Personal Meaning

It’s a common belief in existential psychotherapy that emptiness and meaninglessness pervade modern society deeply. This leads to negative things like:

  • Mental illnesses
  • Despair
  • Destructive activities

They strive to help patients discover the meaning of their lives, even if it means digging into painful past experiences. They’ll focus on their beliefs, talents, and emotions to uncover the truth.

Coping With Anxiety

No matter how strong a person is, just about everyone has conscious and unconscious anxieties. This can be because their values and goals aren’t always clear. This can lead to anxiety about not knowing which way to go.

Therapists can help them find the root of these anxieties and learn how to deal with them.

Living in the Present

People struggle with living in the past or worrying about the future. An existential therapist helps a person to live in the moment. They help them understand that everything passes by quickly and nothing lasts forever.

Who Might Benefit From Existential Therapy?

Several people might benefit from existential therapy. They include people who deal with:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Resentment
  • Apathy
  • Shame
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Meaninglessness
  • Psychosis
  • Rage
  • Dependency
  • Use disorders

Existential therapy has also benefitted people who live with advanced cancer, are chronically ill, are incarcerated, or even live in senior living homes.

Therapists who practice this form of therapy are often highly trained in both mental health training as well as philosophy.

What Are Some Limitations of Existential Therapy?

Although this therapy can be helpful for many, it can prove to be a bit dark or pessimistic for others. Existential psychotherapy faces the painful moments in life head-on. For example, one goal of this therapy can be to get rid of the fear of death so that it doesn’t control one’s choices.

Although there has been some research conducted on its effectiveness, it isn’t well-researched compared to other forms of therapy.

This is because the very nature of existential psychotherapy is hard to measure. This can make it hard to compare to other forms of therapy.

What to Look For in an Existential Therapist

Finding the right existential therapist is important. Before you commit, make sure to screen them in person, on video, or in a phone call. You can ask them:

  • To describe their process
  • What the treatment timeline is
  • How they can help you with specific concerns
  • If they have dealt with that problem before

You can also ask them about their mental health and philosophy training. These vary by state, but many existential therapists will have graduate degrees in both counseling and psychology. Find a therapist with a lot of experience in what you’re dealing with, like Naya Clinics.

Continue Your Self-Development Journey

Existential psychotherapy is an alternative form of therapy that helps patients on a deeper, more holistic level. Although it might not be for everyone, there’s no question that it brings a level of self-awareness and confidence that other methods don’t focus on.

If you want to continue your journey to enlightenment, make sure to check out our other articles today!

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