Existential Therapy

Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy that aims to help individuals explore the meaning and purpose of their lives, choice and decision-making, responsibility, and mortality. It is based on the existential philosophy that suggests that humans have unique abilities and limitations, and we become aware of our existence in the world as we confront the struggles and challenges that are part of the human experience.

The Origins of Existential Therapy

The origins of existential therapy can be traced back to the works of philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger. The term “existentialism” was coined by Gabriel Marcel and Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1940s to describe a philosophical movement that focused on human existence and experience.

Existential therapy was developed by a group of psychologists and psychiatrists, including Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, and Irvin Yalom, in the 1950s and 1960s. These therapists found that traditional forms of psychotherapy did not always address the unique needs and concerns of their clients. They believed that people who were struggling with existential issues such as the meaning of life, freedom and responsibility, and the inevitability of death, would benefit from a therapy that focused on these concerns.

The Principles of Existential Therapy

Existential therapy is based on several key principles:

The Four Givens of Existence

According to existential therapy, there are four fundamental givens of existence that individuals must face:

  • Death
  • Freedom
  • Isolation
  • Meaninglessness

These givens are seen as sources of anxiety and can lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness. Existential therapy seeks to help clients come to terms with these givens and find meaning and purpose in their lives.

Choice and Responsibility

Existential therapy emphasizes the importance of personal choice and responsibility. Clients are encouraged to take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and to recognize that they have the power to make choices that can impact their lives. This can help them feel more in control and empowered.

Existential Themes

Existential therapy focuses on several key themes that are central to the human experience:

  • Freedom and Choice
  • Death and Mortality
  • Isolation and Loneliness
  • Meaning and Purpose
  • Authenticity and Being

Therapists help clients explore these themes and develop a deeper understanding of their significance in their lives.

Human Potential

Existential therapy recognizes the unique potential of each individual and seeks to help clients tap into their strengths and abilities. It encourages clients to live to their fullest potential and to make the most of their lives.

The Process of Existential Therapy

Existential therapy is a highly individualized process that is tailored to the needs and concerns of each client. However, there are several key elements that are typically part of the therapy process:


Therapists typically begin the therapy process by conducting an assessment to gain a better understanding of the client’s concerns and struggles. This may involve asking questions about the client’s past experiences, current challenges, and goals for therapy.

Exploration of Key Themes

Existential therapy involves exploring key themes that are relevant to the client’s experiences and concerns. This may involve exploring questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” or “How do I cope with the fear of death?”

Reflection and Exploration

Clients are encouraged to reflect on their experiences and explore their thoughts, feelings, and actions in a safe and supportive environment. This can help them gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their experiences.

Goal-Setting and Action Planning

Existential therapy encourages clients to set goals and develop action plans to help them make positive changes in their lives. Therapists may offer guidance and support to help clients achieve their goals.

Effectiveness of Existential Therapy

Research has shown that existential therapy can be effective for a wide range of mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and trauma. It has also been shown to be effective for people who are struggling with existential issues such as the meaning of life, freedom and responsibility, and the inevitability of death.

Existential therapy is often used in combination with other forms of psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic therapy. Therapists may also incorporate other complementary therapies, such as mindfulness or art therapy, to help clients achieve their goals.


Existential therapy can be a valuable tool for individuals who are struggling with existential issues or who want to explore their purpose and meaning in life. It can help clients gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their experiences and make positive changes in their lives. By emphasizing personal choice and responsibility and recognizing the unique potential of each individual, existential therapy can help clients live more authentic and fulfilling lives.


FAQs About Existential Therapy

1. What is existential therapy?

Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on helping individuals navigate life’s big questions and search for meaning and purpose. It addresses the human condition and explores topics such as freedom, choice, responsibility, and mortality.

2. Who can benefit from existential therapy?

Existential therapy can benefit anyone who feels lost, unsure of their purpose, or stuck in life. It may be particularly helpful for individuals who are experiencing an existential crisis or difficult life transition, such as a mid-life crisis, career change, or loss of a loved one. It can also benefit those seeking to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their values.

3. How does existential therapy work?

Existential therapy is non-directive and client-centered. It involves working collaboratively with the therapist to explore and identify the client’s unique concerns and struggles. The therapist helps the client develop insight and self-awareness and encourages them to take responsibility for their choices and actions. Ultimately, the goal of existential therapy is to help the individual cultivate a sense of meaning and purpose in their life.


1. May, R. (1981). The meaning of anxiety (Reissue ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. (May, 1981)

2. Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. Basic Books. (Yalom, 1980)

3. Van Deurzen, E. (2018). Everyday mysteries: Existential dimensions of psychotherapy (2nd ed.). Routledge. (Van Deurzen, 2018)