Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy that aims to help people find a sense of meaning in their lives. It is less rigidly structured than other types of therapy and focuses on exploring a person’s whole existence.

Existential therapy derives its core concepts from the philosophy of existentialism, or existential theory.

One of the foundational ideas of existentialism is that there is no inherent meaning to life, so it is each person’s responsibility to create meaning and a sense of purpose for themselves.

This article explores what existential theory is, what existential therapy is and how it relates to this philosophy, who may benefit from existential therapy, its limitations, and when to talk with a doctor about any mental health concerns.

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Existential theory, or existentialism, is the philosophical school of thought dealing with questions of existence and how to live a meaningful life.

The central theme of existentialism is that life has no predetermined or innate meaning, but people can use their free will to create identity and a sense of meaning for themselves.


Existentialism as most people know it first took root in the 19th century with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas of nihilism and “the death of God” also highly influenced existentialist thought.

However, existentialism’s popularity among philosophers and the general population increased after World War II. The Holocaust and the use of atomic weapons led many people to question their presuppositions about the meaning of life, the nature of good and evil, and the human condition.

Many famous existentialist philosophers rose to prominence in the postwar years, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

Core concepts

People often describe existentialism as dealing with the problems of modernity, such as secularism, the lack of prescriptive meaning once offered by religion, and the prospect of annihilation by the climate crisis or nuclear war.

Sartre summarized the foundational principle of existential theory with the phrase, “Existence precedes essence,” meaning that people are born without an essential purpose to their lives. They must make their own purpose to find meaning and fulfillment, and to “live authentically.”

One of the philosophical problems of existence, as existential theory views it, is that as more people increasingly attain material prosperity, comfort, and political freedom in the age of modernity, they no longer have difficulty surviving as they once would have.

This newfound freedom gives more options to people and, therefore, more responsibility to self-actualize and make difficult choices about how to use this freedom to live well.

It may lead some people to experience an existential crisis, in which they may question their existence and the meaning of life.

Existential therapy is a philosophy-informed approach to psychotherapy. It may help a person address mental health conditions such as existential anxiety and existential depression.

There is no rigid definition of existential therapy. Rather, it is an umbrella term for a group of psychotherapeutic approaches that philosophy informs and that focus on similar existential problems and solutions.

However, most existential therapy practices deal with the American psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s four givens:

Some models and types of existential therapy include:

  • logotherapy
  • Daseinsanalysis
  • meaning-making intervention
  • individual meaning-centered psychotherapy
  • managing cancer and living meaningfully
  • cognitive and existential intervention
  • meaning-centered group psychotherapy
  • dignity therapy
  • meaning of life intervention
  • life-review interviews
  • hope intervention

Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, existential therapy generally places less emphasis on diagnosing mental health conditions and relieving symptoms.

Instead, existential therapy aims to help people explore their lived experiences in an authentic, sincere, open, and comprehensive way without suppressing difficult or distressing emotions or thoughts.

Through a collaborative and spontaneous process of discovery with their therapist, a person may gain a clearer sense of the subjective meaning their experiences may contain. In this way, they can come to terms with their own existence.

Existential therapy avoids doctrine or dogma. Each therapist’s approach and each therapist-client relationship is highly individualized. It places special emphasis on the relationship between therapist and client.

However, one common approach of existential therapy is the phenomenological method. It focuses on experience as a person lives it, rather than on their reflections on the meaning of this experience.

Ultimately, existential therapy’s goal is to help people find or create meaning in their lives despite the concerns and anxieties that life naturally causes.

In this way, a person can feel they are living authentically as their true selves and make decisions motivated by positivity instead of fear.

Due to its fundamental concentration on someone’s entire existence rather than just symptom relief and psychopathology, existential therapy may suit a broad range of people, including those living with:

A 2018 study suggests that existential therapy may also be effective for people who are living with advanced stage cancer. Another 2018 study suggests it may also benefit people who are incarcerated.

While there is some evidence that existential therapy may be effective for some people, it may not suit everyone.

Some people may find existential therapy’s central themes, such as Yalom’s four givens, are too pessimistic or dark for them.

If someone feels particularly vulnerable or anxious, they may not be ready to embrace the painful, hurtful aspects of existence that this type of therapy may address.

Another of existential therapy’s limitations is that this therapeutic approach naturally resists definition, according to the New School of Psychotherapy and Counseling.

Because of this, therapeutic outcomes are difficult to quantify and measure. This means scientists may have difficulty researching existential therapy, drawing conclusions about its effectiveness, or accurately and fairly comparing it with other therapeutic approaches.

If someone is concerned about their mental health or is experiencing any mental health symptoms, speaking with a doctor may help.

A primary care physician may refer someone to a mental health professional. They may be able to provide psychotherapy, such as existential therapy, or other treatments.

If someone thinks they or a loved one may be having a mental health crisis or is experiencing suicidal thoughts, they can call 911 or a helpline, such as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Existential therapy is a type of psychotherapy that explores aspects of existence, such as freedom, meaninglessness, isolation, and death.

Unlike other therapies that focus on diagnosing and treating mental health conditions and their symptoms, existential therapy considers a person’s experiences without suppressing difficult or distressing emotions or thoughts. This may help a person develop a better sense of meaning in their life.

If someone is experiencing symptoms of any mental health conditions or an existential crisis, they can consider speaking with a healthcare professional for support.