An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of his or her life: whether his or her life has any meaning, purpose or value. This issue of the meaning and purpose of existence is the topic of the philosophical school of existentialism.
An existential crisis may result from:
- The sense of being alone and isolated in the world;
- A new-found grasp or appreciation of one's mortality;
- Believing that one's life has no purpose or external meaning;
- Searching for the meaning of life;
- Awareness of one's freedom and the consequences of accepting or rejecting that freedom;
- An extremely pleasurable or hurtful experience that leaves one seeking meaning;
An existential crisis is often provoked by a significant event in the person's life — psychological trauma, marriage, separation, major loss, the death of a loved one, a life-threatening experience, a new love partner, psychoactive drug use, adult children leaving home, reaching a personally-significant age (turning 16, turning 40, etc.), etc. Usually, it provokes the sufferer's introspection about personal mortality, thus revealing the psychological repression of said awareness.
An existential crisis may resemble anomie (a personal condition resulting from a lack of norms) or a midlife crisis. Sometimes, an existential crisis stems from a person's new perception of life and existence. Analogously, existentialism posits that a person can and does define the meaning and purpose of their life, and therefore must choose to resolve the crisis of existence.
Handling existential crises 
Peter Wessel Zapffe, a Norwegian philosopher, provided, in his work The Last Messiah, a fourfold route that he believed all self-conscious beings use in order to cope with the inherent indifference and absurdity of existence, comprising Anchoring, Isolation, Distraction, and Sublimation:
- Anchoring is the "fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness". The anchoring mechanism provides individuals with a value or an ideal that allows them to focus their attentions in a consistent manner. Zapffe also applied the anchoring principle to society, and stated "God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future" are all examples of collective primary anchoring firmaments.
- Isolation is "a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling".
- Distraction occurs when "one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions". Distraction focuses all of one's energy on a task or idea to prevent the mind from turning in on itself.
- Sublimation is the refocusing of energy away from negative outlets, toward positive ones. The individual distances him / herself and looks at his or her existence from an aesthetic point of view (e.g. writers, poets, painters). Zapffe himself pointed out that his written works were the product of sublimation.
Intense vipassana meditation will usually bring about a set of experiences, referred to as the dark night of the soul by Western spiritual traditions, that resemble the typical symptoms of an existential crisis. During the "dark night", meditators become severely discouraged in regard to practice and life in general, although continuing meditation is said to be the way to overcome this difficult stage.
Literary examples 
Prince Hamlet experiences an existential crisis as a result of the death of his father. This is shown especially by Shakespeare in the famous soliloquy which starts, "To be, or not to be: that is the question...".
See also 
- "Dark Night of the Soul"
- Ego death
- Existential risk
- Meaning of life
- Mystical experiences
- Positive Disintegration
- Spiritual crisis
Further reading 
- J. Watson, Caring Science as Sacred Science 2005. Chapter 4: "Existential Crisis in Science and Human Sciences".
- P. Strang, Existential crisis of the dying physician. Lakartidningen, 2004. (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- T.M. Cousineau, A. Seibring, M.T. Barnard, P-673 Making meaning of infertility: Existential crisis or personal transformation? Fertility and Sterility, 2006.