Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is an effective approach to treating a wide variety of mental illnesses and emotional problems. It can lessen the impact of a traumatic event, help one deal with the death of a loved one, and also target harmful symptoms of depression or anxiety. Now, psychotherapy is the overarching treatment method, but it can be split into a few broad categories as well—one of these being humanistic therapy. Humanistic therapy stresses our capacity to make rational choices and reach our fullest potential. This, too, can be broken down just a bit further, into three categories: client-centered therapy, Gestalt therapy, and—the topic at hand—existential therapy.

Existential therapy focuses on human beings as a whole: our human capacities, aspirations, and limitations. This style began to emerge in the mid-1800s, when philosopher Soren Kierkegaard posited that our unhappiness could only be solved with internal wisdom. Sometime later, Friedrich Nietzsche developed the theory of existentialism, as others explored similar concepts, until Otto Rank actively pursued the idea of existential therapy as a practice. Psychologists like Paul Tillich and Rollo May then normalized is as an approach to therapy through their writings and teachings.

How Does It Work?

Existential psychotherapy encourages individuals to openly confront their emotional problems and take full responsibility for whatever decisions may have caused them. These patients are also taught to accept their fears and develop skills that will help tear these fears down. Ultimately, this form of therapy is all about realizing and taking control of one’s life. Once this is realized, patients feel liberated, which is a useful tool in letting go of whatever’s holding them back. Say, for example, a woman named Margaret lost her mother a few months ago and ever since has been upset over the loss as well as fearful about death. Existential psychotherapy will help Margaret accept the loss and also diminish her fear of death, by essentially teaching her to take control of her own destiny and accept that death is a natural part of life.

Furthermore, existential psychotherapy works by not focusing on an individual’s past, but rather using it to help them realize effects of choices and beliefs that resulted in undesired outcomes. Once patients accept the fact that they’re in charge of their life, they can embrace a newfound freedom and state of peace.

Understanding Our Interactions With “Givens”

Existential psychotherapy centers around the belief that we all experience internal conflict as a result of our reactions to external factors and conditions—these conditions are called givens, and there are at least four primary givens with which existential psychotherapy is concerned with:

  • Death, such that we will all die at one point or another.
  • Freedom and responsibilitis, whereas the first cannot exist without the latter, and the latter comes with great pressure.
  • Isolation, which can result from being physically or emotionally excluded from others.
  • Meaninglessness, such that there is potentially no meaning or greater purpose of our lives.

When we face these givens head-on, we’re often overtaken by dread or existential anxiety, which reduces one’s awareness—physically, psychologically, spiritually—and results in lasting harmful effects. Take, for example, the third item in the list of givens: isolation. We may become so fearful of isolation or social exclusion that we forego social outings and activities… but this doesn’t really solve the problem, does it? It creates it. We should instead create a healthy balance between putting ourselves out there, being independent, and also understanding that there’s not always a place for us in a conversation or activity—but that’s okay. In this case, it’s all about valuing our independence and relationships all at once.

The other givens—death, freedom (and its responsibilities), and meaninglessness—can similarly lead us astray and provoke anxiety if we fear them and attempt to avoid them altogether. The key is to acknowledge them, accept them, and navigate appropriately.

What Problems Can It Resolve?

As briefly mentioned, existential psychotherapy effectively treats a broad range of illnesses and issues; as long as an individual is willing to confront their issues and take responsibility for their decisions, they can benefit from this form of therapy. But a few specific mental health conditions that existential psychology can treat include depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Those who immerse themselves in this kind of therapy oftentimes find a greater meaning in life and also develop better self-awareness, self-respect, and self-motivation. They leave therapy with a better understanding of how they control their own fate and no longer rely on an external locus of control.