Existential psychotherapy is a form of therapy that revolves around the human condition as a whole. The therapy is based on the idea that humans experience conflict around certain conditions that everyone experiences. These experiences are death, freedom and the responsibility that goes with it, isolation, and meaninglessness (Cooper, 2003). There are several other approaches to psychotherapy. For instance, Emmy van Deurzen’s version encourages the exploration of the physical being, personal being, social being, and spiritual dimension (Cooper, 2003). Psychotherapy means a treatment modality where the patient talks to the therapist and moves through a series of steps designed to help them resolve their conflict. There are many different types of psychotherapy including psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, and cognitive therapy.
One of the ways in which existential therapy differs from other psychotherapy methods is that it focuses on the future, rather than focusing on reconciling the past (Cooper, 2003). The goal of the therapy is to get the person to develop a greater sense of self-awareness and understanding. They must realize that they are responsible for their own recovery and see beyond the end of the therapy (Cooper, 2003). Other therapy modalities focus on the reasons for the behavior and triggers from that past that might lead to a certain behavior. The focus is on the behaviors themselves and not the entire person. Other therapies focus on changing behaviors by eliminating triggers or by learning coping mechanisms., should the triggers occur. The main difference between existential therapy and other psychotherapy modalities is that existential therapy focuses on the future, while the others focus on the past, and present behavior.
Existential therapy differs from psychotherapy in that the goal is to clarify the client’s experience of living in the world, rather than focusing on changing behaviors (Oliveira, Sousa, & Pires, 2012). Existential therapy does not specifically encourage change, but rather seeks to understand the client’s position (Oliveira, Sousa, & Pires, 2012). It takes a collaborative approach to developing this understanding. The therapist takes a non-judgmental attitude toward the client (Oliveira, Sousa, & Pires, 2012).
There have only been a limited number of academic studies that explored existential psychotherapy. Existential therapy is rather limited in the types of conditions that it can treat. It can be used to treat depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Vos, Craig, & Cooper, 2015). Discussing the meaning of life with physically ill patients was found to be beneficial to those patients (Vos, Craig, & Cooper, 2015). The existential approach was developed out of failings of the bio-psycho-social model used in other psychotherapy models in validating the existential crises of the patients (Moore & Goldner-Vukov, 2009).
Existential therapy focuses on helping the patient have a meaningful life, not just change unwanted behaviors. The therapy focuses on the existential concerns that underlie much of human behavior (Moore & Goldner-Vukov, 2009). Rather than being a receiver of the care, the patient takes charge of their own future. They not only change undesirable behaviors, they develop a better sense of self and personal identity. This foundation will help them to better cope with circumstances and situations in their future.
Existential therapy gives the patients that tools that they need to be able to make decisions in the future that are in alignment with their true self, rather than from the standpoint of having a set of coping mechanisms, as other psychotherapy modalities provide. The patient will approach life from a deeper understanding of the meaning of their life. Existential therapy can be combined with other therapy modalities in order to provide a foundation for behavioral change techniques. Existential therapy focuses on the individuality of the person and respects their unique life experiences, rather than teaching them a list to specific techniques and coping skills. Existential therapy is good adjunct to other types of therapy.
- Cooper, M. (2003). Existential Therapies. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://moe.machighway.com/~cliffor1/Site/EXSupplementalReadings_files/51191461-Cooper-Existential-Therapies.pdf
- Moore, J. & Goldner-Vukov, M. (2009). The Existential Way to Recovery. Psychiatria Danubina. 21 (4): 453-462.
- Oliveira, A., Sousa, D. & Pires, A. (2012). Significant Events in Existential Psychotherapy: The Client’s Perspective. Existential Analysis. 23 (2): 288-304.
- Vos, J., Craig, M. & Cooper, M. (2015). Existential therapies: A meta-analysis of their effects on psychological outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 83 (1): 115-128.