A number of things can trigger an existential crisis, from a random realization about the nature of reality, to more jarring events like a medical diagnosis, war, losing a loved one, or a traumatic experience. Essentially, anything that abruptly shifts your perception or your existence may incite an existential crisis, according to Spinelli.
It’s also worth noting that there are a few different types of existential crises, which are more or less common depending on how old you are. As Spinelli explains, there are “sophomore crisis,” which is an existential crisis in someone’s teenage years as they come into their identity and start thinking about the future.
A quarter-life crisis, on the other hand, typically happens in early adulthood as a young adult transitions into the working world and adjusts to life on their own. Midlife crises happen in middle age, and tend to be more about reflecting on past choices and missed opportunities. Lastly, there are “later-life crises,” Spinelli says, which involve questions around mortality, illness, legacy, regret, and purpose.
Regardless of when an existential crisis occurs, though, similar symptoms are to be expected. As psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT previously told mindbodygreen, “When people reevaluate their lives, it often brings up mixed emotions of anxiety, stress, regret, and sadness.”
Plus, the older we get, the harder it is to ignore our inevitable finitude. “Something about the recognition of that leads people to want to grasp at something, to feel more alive—and sometimes make changes in their life,” psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D. previously told mindbodygreen.
For any visual learners out there, there’s a textbook example of an existential crisis at play in season two of The Good Place, as one of the show’s main characters is thrown for loop when he realizes there’s a possibility he could die. Check it out here (if you don’t mind a slight spoiler).