What is Existential Therapy?

Are you seeking a profound exploration of life’s deepest questions, an opportunity to discover your authentic self, and a way to confront the challenges of existence with greater clarity and purpose? Existential therapy might be the path you’ve been looking for. Rooted in the philosophy of existentialism, this therapeutic approach invites you to embark on a unique journey of self-discovery and self-awareness. By delving into existential themes such as freedom, responsibility, choice, and meaning, existential therapy can offer profound insights and transformative experiences.

Whether you’re grappling with questions about the purpose of life, struggling with anxiety and uncertainty, or seeking a deeper connection with your true self, existential therapy can provide you with the tools and guidance to navigate these existential waters. Join us in exploring the profound depths of your existence, embracing your freedom and responsibility, and unlocking a more authentic and meaningful life through existential therapy.

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What is Existential Therapy?

What is Existential Therapy?

Existential therapy is a philosophical and psychotherapeutic approach that explores profound questions about the human condition, existence, and meaning. It emerged in the mid-20th century as a reaction to more traditional forms of psychotherapy and is rooted in existential philosophy and psychology.

History of Existential Therapy

Existential therapy was influenced by the existentialist philosophy of thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who explored fundamental questions about human existence, freedom, and meaning. Here is a brief history of existential therapy:

  • Roots in Existential Philosophy (19th and 20th Century): Existential therapy finds its roots in the philosophical works of existentialist philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, who delved into the individual’s struggle for authenticity and the search for meaning. Existentialism gained prominence in the early 20th century with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others.
  • Development by Viktor Frankl: The foundation of existential therapy was further developed by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. Frankl’s experiences led him to develop logotherapy, a form of existential therapy that emphasizes finding meaning in life even in the most challenging circumstances.
  • Emergence of Existential Therapy (1950s-1960s): Existential therapy as a distinct therapeutic approach began to emerge in the mid-20th century. Psychologists and therapists like Rollo May, Irvin D. Yalom, and Viktor Frankl himself played pivotal roles in popularizing this approach. Their works emphasized the importance of existential concerns in understanding and addressing mental and emotional struggles.
  • Core Principles and Concepts: Existential therapy focuses on several core principles, including the exploration of existential concerns (freedom, choice, responsibility, isolation, and meaning), the importance of self-awareness, and the development of an authentic and meaningful life. It places a strong emphasis on the therapeutic relationship and the client’s exploration of their values and beliefs.
  • Integration into Modern Psychotherapy: Existential therapy has been integrated into various therapeutic modalities and continues to influence contemporary psychotherapy. While it retains its distinct approach, existential principles have contributed to the development of other therapeutic methods, such as humanistic, person-centered, and experiential therapies.

10 Key Elements of Existential Therapy

10 Key Elements of Existential Therapy

Here are some key principles and elements of existential therapy:

Exploration of Existential Themes

Existential therapy delves into universal existential themes, such as freedom, responsibility, choice, meaning, death, and isolation. It encourages individuals to confront these themes in their lives.

Emphasis on the Individual

Existential therapy is highly individualized. Therapists work closely with clients to understand their unique experiences, values, and beliefs. It does not rely on diagnostic labels but instead focuses on the person’s subjective experience.

Freedom and Responsibility

Central to existential therapy is the idea that individuals have the freedom to make choices in their lives. With this freedom comes responsibility for the consequences of those choices. Clients are encouraged to take ownership of their decisions.

Anxiety as a Fundamental Emotion

Existential therapy views anxiety as a natural and inherent part of the human experience. It often arises when individuals grapple with the uncertainties and responsibilities of life. Therapists help clients understand and manage their anxiety.

Search for Meaning

Existential therapy places a strong emphasis on the quest for meaning and purpose in life. Clients are encouraged to explore what gives their lives significance and how they can align their actions with their values.

Authenticity and Authentic Living

Authenticity is a core concept in existential therapy. It involves living in accordance with one’s true self and values rather than conforming to societal or external pressures. Therapists support clients in becoming more authentic in their choices and actions.

Here-and-Now Focus

Existential therapy often has a present-oriented focus. Therapists help clients explore their current experiences, emotions, and choices, rather than dwelling excessively on past traumas or future anxieties.

Phenomenological Approach

Existential therapy employs a phenomenological approach, which means therapists seek to understand the world from the client’s perspective. They explore the client’s subjective experiences without imposing their own interpretations.

Engagement in Dialogue

Existential therapy is characterized by a collaborative and exploratory dialogue between the therapist and client. The therapeutic relationship is crucial, as it provides a space for clients to express their thoughts and feelings openly.

Exploration of Death and Mortality

Existential therapy addresses the human awareness of mortality and the finite nature of life. Confronting one’s own mortality can lead to a deeper appreciation of life’s possibilities.

Benefits of Existential Therapy

Benefits of Existential Therapy

Existential therapy does not necessarily offer specific techniques or interventions but rather provides a philosophical framework for understanding and confronting life’s challenges. It is especially well-suited for individuals who are seeking to explore questions of meaning, authenticity, and purpose in their lives. Therapists trained in existential therapy work alongside clients to facilitate their journey of self-exploration and self-discovery.

Some of the benefits of existential therapy include:

  • Greater Self-Awareness
  • Enhanced Personal Growth
  • Improved Decision-Making
  • Effective Coping with Anxiety
  • Increased Authenticity
  • Better Relationships
  • Enhanced Problem Solving
  • Exploration of Meaning
  • Embracing Mortality
  • Holistic Well-Being
  • Emotional Resilience
  • Enhanced Creativity
  • Freedom from External Expectations
  • Empowerment
  • Deeper Self-Reflection
  • Improved Communication
  • Greater Life Satisfaction
  • Transcendence of Limitations
  • Emotional Freedom
  • Reconnection with Nature

How Existential Therapy Helps with Specific Challenges

How Existential Therapy Helps with Specific Challenges

Existential therapy’s focus on self-awareness, authenticity, and the exploration of life’s fundamental questions makes it a versatile approach for addressing a wide range of challenges. By examining the existential aspects of these issues, individuals can gain a deeper understanding and work toward personal growth and positive change. Here are examples of how it might apply to some of the more common, tangible reasons that people seek therapy:


Existential therapy can help individuals with depression by exploring the underlying issues related to their sense of meaning and purpose. By examining their values and beliefs, individuals can find a renewed sense of direction and motivation.

OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)

Existential therapy can assist those with OCD by challenging rigid thought patterns and rituals. It encourages individuals to explore the anxiety and fear driving their obsessions and compulsions, leading to a deeper understanding and more adaptive coping mechanisms.


Existential therapy addresses anxiety by exploring the root causes of existential anxiety, such as the fear of death or the unknown. By confronting these fears, individuals can reduce overall anxiety and develop strategies for managing anxious thoughts and emotions.

Women’s Issues

Existential therapy can empower women to navigate issues related to identity, self-worth, and societal expectations. It encourages self-exploration and helps women define their values and authentic selves.

Existential Therapy in Combination with Other Therapy Types

Substance Addiction

Existential therapy approaches addiction by examining the underlying emptiness or void that substance use may temporarily fill. It helps individuals find healthier ways to address existential concerns and cope with cravings.

Grief and Loss

This therapy helps individuals navigate the profound existential questions that arise during times of grief and loss. It encourages the exploration of the meaning of life, death, and the enduring impact of the deceased.

Relationship Issues

Existential therapy can improve relationships by fostering authenticity and self-awareness in individuals. It encourages open communication, allowing couples to explore their values, goals, and the meaning of their partnership.

Stress and Coping

Existential therapy provides tools for managing stress by addressing the root causes of existential anxiety. It helps individuals develop adaptive coping strategies and a more resilient mindset.

Life Transitions

Whether it’s a career change, relocation, or a major life decision, existential therapy can guide individuals through transitions by helping them align their choices with their authentic selves.

Identity Exploration

Existential therapy is valuable for individuals exploring their identity, including aspects related to gender, sexuality, cultural identity, and more. It encourages self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Existential Therapy in Combination with Other Therapy Types

Existential Therapy in Combination with Other Therapy Types

Existential therapy is a distinct therapeutic approach with its own philosophical underpinnings and principles, but it is not typically categorized as a specific modality like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Narrative Therapy. Instead, it can be considered a humanistic and existential-experiential approach to therapy.

Existential therapy shares some commonalities with other humanistic therapies like Person-Centered Therapy and Gestalt Therapy, as they all emphasize the importance of the therapeutic relationship, self-awareness, and personal growth. However, existential therapy’s unique focus is on addressing existential concerns, such as questions about the meaning of life, freedom, choice, responsibility, and the human condition.

While existential therapy is a distinct approach, therapists may integrate existential principles and techniques into their practice, complementing other modalities. Here’s what that might look like in combination with some other common therapy types:

Existential-Person-Centered Integration

Combining existential therapy with Person-Centered Therapy, developed by Carl Rogers, emphasizes the therapeutic relationship, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. The therapist provides a safe and empathetic space for the client to explore their existential concerns, fostering self-acceptance and personal growth.

Existential-Cognitive Integration

By integrating existential therapy with cognitive-behavioral techniques, clients can explore their existential concerns while also addressing specific cognitive distortions or negative thought patterns. This combination allows clients to work on both immediate psychological issues and broader existential questions.

Existential-Gestalt Integration

Gestalt therapy’s emphasis on the here and now and experiential techniques can complement existential therapy. Clients can explore their existential concerns through experiential exercises and creative interventions, gaining a deeper understanding of their feelings and behaviors.

Existential-Narrative Integration

Combining existential therapy with Narrative Therapy allows clients to explore the stories they tell themselves about their lives and identity. Clients can examine how their narratives relate to their existential concerns and work toward reframing them in more meaningful ways.

Existential Therapy in Combination with Other Therapy Types

Existential-Mindfulness Integration

Existential therapy can be integrated with mindfulness practices, helping clients stay present and fully experience their existential concerns without judgment. Mindfulness techniques can enhance self-awareness and provide tools for managing distress related to existential issues.

Existential-Humanistic Integration

Existential therapy shares humanistic principles with other humanistic approaches like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and self-actualization theories. Combining these approaches can provide a holistic perspective on personal growth and self-fulfillment.

Existential-Existential Integration

In this approach, existential therapy is combined with other existential therapies, such as logotherapy. The focus remains on exploring existential concerns and helping clients find meaning in their lives, but different techniques and perspectives are integrated for a more comprehensive treatment.

Existential-Transpersonal Integration

Transpersonal psychology explores spiritual and transcendent aspects of human experience. Combining existential therapy with transpersonal approaches can help clients explore existential concerns within a broader spiritual or transcendent context.

Existential Therapy in Combination with Other Therapy Types

Next Steps

Some therapists practice integrative psychotherapy, combining existential principles with elements of various therapeutic modalities to create a tailored approach that suits the client’s unique needs and concerns.

Are you ready to find a therapist who offers existential therapy? Search our therapist directory today to find the one who is right for you. Or call us for more information.

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