Not all forms of therapy focus on thoughts and emotions alone.
Some psychotherapy approaches go beyond the realm of cognition and feeling. This is also the case of existential psychotherapy, which touches on deeper aspects of human existence, such as meaning, free will, choice, self-determination, freedom, and many others.
Unlike clinical psychology, which mainly focuses on symptoms, existential psychotherapy focuses on the individual as a whole. When seeking to treat a mental health condition with this form of therapy, you might expect complex questions that encompass your ability to make choices, your personal relationships, and the way you envision your future.
In this article, you’ll find out more information on what existential therapy is, what type of themes it focuses on, and who it is suitable for. You will also find out how online therapy focused on this approach can benefit you and your mental health.
What Is Existential Therapy All About?
If you ever attend this form of therapy, you may find that it’s richer, more complex, and different in structure than other therapy approaches. Since existential therapy is rooted in 20th-century philosophy, it views the individual as an entity with free will and responsibility who often ponders big themes such as meaning, choice, and loneliness.
While it still uses techniques to help clients overcome mental health struggles, this form of therapy is more focused on uncovering the hidden reasons that create them. For example, if a client struggles with an addiction problem, the existential therapist will guide them towards repressed thoughts and emotions that maintain their problem. Existential therapy is based on a series of principles inspired by the humanistic school of thought. Some of them are:
Meaning of life
A strong sense of purpose and clear direction are essential for mental health. In existential therapy, individuals are supported to give meaning to their daily existence or find a higher purpose for their activities. When someone feels that their life lacks meaning and direction, their mental health suffers.
This is why this form of therapy places such great emphasis on this particular topic. Ultimately, people want to feel that their lives matter and that they are part of something bigger than the daily, mundane tasks they often do. When someone struggles to answer some bigger existential questions, an existential therapist can help. For this reason, this therapy approach is particularly suitable for emotionally mature individuals who need some guidance in creating a bigger purpose for their lives.
In existential therapy, the client is the ultimate expert of their lives. They are encouraged to use their own self-awareness to answer deeper questions that create mental distress. Existential psychotherapists believe that the client can reach new insights or uncover repressed thoughts when they are supported to reduce the inner psychic conflict.
Freedom and personal responsibility
Existential therapy is not the type of intervention where the therapist has all the answers or does all the work. Instead, it has a collaborative approach based on the fundamental idea that the clients are free to make their own choices. Similarly, existential therapy highlights the role of personal responsibility in changing one’s dysfunctional patterns.
For example, when someone’s distress is caused by their failure to leave a toxic relationship, a therapist can help them exercise personal responsibility. It is highly important for people to realize that no one from the outside can save them from their own suffering.
Recognizing one’s freedom of choice can be frightening at first but highly empowering when it becomes a way of living. The themes of freedom and personal responsibility are found in most therapeutic approaches, but particularly in existential psychotherapy.
While in other psychotherapeutic approaches anxiety is treated as a clinical symptom or biological dysfunction, existential therapy views it as a normal aspect of the human condition. We live in perpetual anxiety, not knowing what awaits in the future. We can’t make people love us to the end of our lives, nor can we control any wider circumstances in our lives. These uncertainties lead to underlying anxiety that can also manifest psychologically and emotionally.
However, instead of treating anxiety with structured techniques and tools, existential therapy helps individuals ponder the deeper meaning of their fears and embrace them. When working with a therapist trained in this approach, they might help you resolve the inner conflict stemming from the complex uncertainty.
Death and loneliness
Many people mistakenly believe that therapy is all about positive thinking. While it does strengthen the ability to think in adaptive ways, therapy does not shift someone’s attention away from “heavier” themes such as isolation, death, loneliness, and meaninglessness. Existential therapy helps people contend with core existential problems that may, sooner or later, manifest in their lives.
This does not mean that existential therapy is overly focused on these difficult issues – rather, it aims to help people strike a balance between the avoidance of those problems (death, loneliness, etc.) and their acceptance.
For example, someone who has chronic and crippling anxiety related to the idea of death might come to accept it without being overwhelmed by it. According to the theories of existential therapy, the manner in which someone responds to the inner conflicts caused by these deeper issues determines their state of mind and future choices.
How Does Existential Therapy Work?
When it comes to existential therapy, there are no significant differences between in-person and online therapy.
In essence, all forms of therapies work with clients to help them overcome mental health issues particular to them. Although the aim is the same, how various therapeutic approaches arrive at the destination differs.
For example, existential therapy does not spend a lot of time dwelling on the past or revising memories. Instead, it aims to help clients work with the choices present in front of them. Sure, an existential therapist might revisit old memories with someone to explore the implications of their choices and their reflection on those experiences, but creating long narratives of the past is not a goal in itself.
In short, existential therapy works by focusing on choices and personal freedom. It aims to help people discover their assertiveness and ability to decide for themselves, which are essential prerequisites to freedom. Some existential therapy techniques are empathic reflection, Socratic questioning, and active listening.
When it comes to structure, existential therapy is slightly different from cognitive approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It is not as structured, goal-oriented, and organized as CBT because it mainly works around the client’s pace. Some clients might need fewer sessions to work through their issues, while others will find that they need more time to open themselves to new solutions.
The therapist’s involvement in therapy
Another aspect particular to existential therapy is how the therapist gets involved in the client’s problems. As stated earlier, in this therapeutic approach, the client is expected to be actively involved in their process and reflect on various challenges they might have.
The role of the psychotherapist is to foster personal responsibility and assertiveness. Irvin Yalom, a key existential psychotherapist, stated that the therapist is a “fellow traveler” for the client, accompanying them through a new way of living and making decisions. The therapists use their skills, personality, and training to provide empathy to their clients and elicit new insights and personal choices.
Just like in other therapeutic approaches, the relational context fostered by the therapist is also beneficial to the client. Most therapists aim to create a secure space in which clients feel empowered to change the way they feel, think, behave, and relate to themselves and others. In this sense, existential psychotherapy is no different – the therapist plays the same active role in creating a strong therapeutic alliance for the client.
Is Existential Therapy Effective?
Individuals who are willing to explore the causes of their mental distress can greatly benefit from existential therapy. There are many types of mental illnesses and behavioral problems that can be treated with this therapeutic intervention. For example, depressed patients have achieved better mental health after following a course of existential psychotherapy sessions.
Similarly, existential therapy is appropriate for addictions that stem from a lack of meaning, boredom, and the need to find fulfillment in one’s life.
Another benefit of existential therapy is that it can also be delivered online through online counseling sessions.
Online therapy is convenient, flexible, more affordable, and can be scheduled around your daily commitments. Unlike in-person therapy, with online counseling, you don’t have to travel to your sessions or worry about being late.
Similarly, online therapy is a great choice for those who have never attended therapy and feel anxious about meeting their therapist face-to-face. With online therapy, you can meet your existential therapy goals just as effectively as you would do in an in-person session.
The Bottom Line
Existential therapy is a therapeutic approach that places great emphasis on all aspects of the human condition. It includes wider and deeper themes, such as meaning, freedom, personal responsibility, and existential anxiety. Given the growth of digital tools, you can also opt for online therapy if you want to see an existential therapist.