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Existential therapy

Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the human condition as a whole, rather than on specific psychological problems or disorders. It aims to help clients explore the meaning and purpose of their lives, as well as their choices and responsibilities. Existential therapy is based on the philosophical ideas of existentialism, which emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries as a response to the challenges and uncertainties of modern life (Cooper, 2003). Some of the key figures in existential philosophy and therapy include Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, and Irvin Yalom (Van Deurzen & Adams, 2016). In this article, we will provide an overview of the main concepts and principles of existential therapy, as well as its applications and limitations.

What is existential therapy?

Existential therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the human condition as a whole, rather than on specific psychological problems or disorders. Existential therapy aims to help clients explore and confront the meaning of their existence, their freedom and responsibility, their mortality and finitude, and their potential for authenticity and growth. It is not a single approach, but rather a broad tradition that encompasses various schools and methods, such as daseinsanalysis, existential-phenomenological therapy, existential-humanistic therapy, and existential-integrative therapy (Schneider & Krug, 2017). Existential therapy is based on philosophical concepts and principles derived from existential thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Frankl. Some of the main themes and issues that existential therapy addresses are: the search for meaning and purpose, the experience of anxiety and dread, the awareness of death and suffering, the freedom of choice and its consequences, the confrontation with existential guilt and loneliness, and the development of authentic relationships and values (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2023).

History and development

Some significant points of the history and development of Existential therapy are:

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Existential therapy is derived from the work of philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, who were two of the first existential thinkers in the 1800s. They explored the nature of being human and the meaning of existence (Psychology Today, 2022).

Later, in the early 20th century, other philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus contributed to existentialism by examining concepts such as freedom, responsibility, authenticity, and absurdity (The Human Condition, n.d.).

Existential therapy also emerged as a response to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, which challenged the assumptions and values of Western civilization. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, developed logotherapy as a form of existential therapy that focused on finding meaning and purpose in life (MantraCare, n.d.).

In the 1950s and 1960s, existential therapy became more popular in the United States, thanks to the influence of Rollo May, who is considered the father of American existential psychology. He integrated existential philosophy with humanistic psychology and psychoanalysis, and emphasized the role of anxiety, creativity, and choice in human development (counselling Directory, n.d.).

Since then, existential therapy has evolved into a diverse and multidisciplinary field that incorporates various perspectives and methods from different schools of psychology, such as cognitive-behavioural, gestalt, narrative, and interpersonal. Some prominent existential therapists include Irvin Yalom, Emmy van Deurzen, James Bugental, Kirk Schneider, and Ernesto Spinelli (ResearchGate, 2020).

Applications and limitations

Existential therapy can be applied to various issues, such as anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, and existential crisis (McMahon, 2022). Some of the benefits of existential therapy include: enhancing self-awareness, increasing authenticity, fostering personal growth, and developing existential resilience (Therapy mantra, 2021).

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However, existential therapy also has some limitations that may affect its suitability for some clients. For example, existential therapy is highly philosophical and may involve complex or abstract concepts that are difficult to understand or apply (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).

Existential therapy may also conflict with some religious beliefs that offer different views on the nature of existence, freewill, and morality (Psych Central, 2021).

Furthermore, existential therapy may open the door to painful memories or experiences that clients may not be ready or willing to face (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Therefore, existential therapy requires a high level of motivation, openness, and courage from the clients.


APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2023). Existential psychotherapy. https://dictionary.apa.org/existential-psychotherapy

Cleveland Clinic. (2021). Existential Therapy: What It Is, What It Treats & Limitations. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/25089-existential-therapy

Cooper, Mick (2003) Between freedom and despair: existential challenges and contributions to person-centered and experiential
therapy. Person-centred and Experiential Psychotherapies, 2 (1). pp. 43-56. ISSN 1477-9757 https://pure.strath.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/131210/strathprints003260.pdf

counselling Directory. (n.d.). Existential therapy. Retrieved December 11, 2023 from https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/existential-therapy.html

McMahon, M. (2022). What Is Existential Therapy? Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/health/existential-therapy

MantraCare. (n.d.). Existential therapy: Techniques, benefits, limitations. Retrieved December 11, 2023 from https://mantracare.org/therapy/therapy-types/existential-therapy/

Psych Central. (2021). Existential Therapy: What It Is and How It Works. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/existential-therapy-what-it-is-and-how-it-works

Psychology Today. (2022). Existential therapy. Retrieved December 11, 2023 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/existential-therapy

ResearchGate. (2020). A brief history and overview of existential-phenomenological psychology. Retrieved December 11, 2023 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344453499_A_Brief_History_and_Overview_of_Existential-phenomenological_Psychology

Schneider, K. J., & Krug, O. T. (2017). Existential–humanistic therapy (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000042-000

The Human Condition. (n.d.). Existential therapy – History, key elements, benefits, effectiveness. Retrieved December 11, 2023 from https://thehumancondition.com/existential-therapy/

Therapy mantra. (2021). Existential Psychotherapy: Concept, Application & Evaluation. Retrieved from https://therapymantra.co/therapy-types/existential-psychotherapy/

Van Deurzen, E., & Adams, M. (2016). Skills in existential counselling & psychotherapy. Sage.

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