Existential Therapy sets itself apart from other commonly employed therapeutic approaches by presenting itself as more of a mindset or philosophy that informs our work, rather than a rigid set of interventions to adhere to (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). It can be seen as an extension of the person-centered therapeutic approach, building upon the foundation laid by Carl Rogers. Keep reading to learn 10 Existential Therapy activities and exercises to do with your clients.
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Existential Therapy has been influenced by numerous professionals who have contributed to its development, including Victor Frankl, Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, James Bugental, Ludwig Binswanger, and Medard Boss (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). However, the list of contributors extends beyond those mentioned.
The core aim of Existential Therapy is to help clients confront the uncertainties and concerns in their lives, make decisions, and discover meaning (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). It recognizes that much of our distress stems from grappling with four fundamental aspects of the human condition: the inevitability of death, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom and responsibility (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Each individual is bound to experience anxiety related to these existential concerns at some point in their lives.
Existential Therapy proposes that we possess the capacity to cope with and transcend these existential challenges by acknowledging and harnessing our strengths (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Such strengths encompass awareness, authenticity, freedom and responsibility, self-actualization, and the pursuit of meaning (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
In the therapeutic process of Existential Therapy, counselors collaborate with clients to help them discover value, meaning, and purpose in their lives (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Clients are encouraged to embrace authenticity and confront the fears that have hindered their growth (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
Given that Existential Therapy does not prescribe a fixed set of interventions, there is no predetermined timeline or requirement for its effectiveness. This allows for a tailored approach that centers on the client’s unique journey. However, three common phases typically unfold in Existential Therapy (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
The initial phase focuses on comprehending the client’s self-awareness and their perception of the world, including their values, beliefs, personal history, and choices (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). In the second phase, clients are encouraged to leverage this self-understanding to find purpose, meaning, and value in their lives while striving for authenticity (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). As clients progress towards the end of treatment, they should be able to accept the presence of anxiety in life and have developed effective coping mechanisms to navigate the inevitable aspects of the human condition (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
Why Existential Therapy?
Existential Therapy is a philosophical and humanistic therapeutic approach that may be chosen for several compelling reasons:
- Exploration of Life’s Meaning: Existential Therapy encourages individuals to explore questions about the meaning and purpose of life, helping them find greater clarity and direction in their existence.
- Freedom and Responsibility: It emphasizes the importance of personal freedom and choice, empowering individuals to take responsibility for their own lives and decisions.
- Emphasis on the Present: Existential Therapy focuses on the present moment, helping individuals become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the here and now.
- Individualized and Client-Centered: It is highly individualized and client-centered, respecting each person’s unique experiences, values, and beliefs. Therapy is tailored to the individual’s specific needs and concerns.
- Authenticity and Self-Expression: Existential Therapy encourages individuals to embrace their authentic selves and express their true thoughts and emotions, fostering a sense of self-acceptance and authenticity.
- Exploration of Existential Themes: Existential Therapy explores key existential themes, such as freedom, responsibility, death, isolation, and meaninglessness, helping individuals come to terms with these fundamental aspects of human existence.
- Coping with Anxiety: It provides tools and strategies for coping with existential anxiety and the uncertainties of life, enabling individuals to live more fully and without overwhelming fear.
- Increased Self-Awareness: Existential Therapy promotes self-awareness and self-reflection, helping individuals gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their life choices.
- Promotes Personal Growth: It encourages personal growth and development, fostering resilience, adaptability, and a greater sense of purpose.
- Positive Therapeutic Relationship: Existential Therapy places a strong emphasis on the therapeutic relationship, providing a supportive and non-judgmental space for self-exploration and growth.
- Transcultural and Multicultural Application: Existential Therapy can be applied with cultural sensitivity, respecting diverse cultural perspectives and values.
- Comprehensive Approach: While primarily used for individual therapy, Existential Therapy principles can also be applied to couples therapy, family therapy, and group therapy settings.
- Enhanced Quality of Life: By helping individuals confront existential concerns and live authentically, Existential Therapy can enhance their overall quality of life and satisfaction.
- Philosophical Framework: Existential Therapy offers a philosophical framework for understanding human existence and provides a unique lens through which to explore life’s challenges and possibilities.
While Existential Therapy offers numerous benefits, it is essential to consider individual preferences and needs when selecting a therapy approach. Existential Therapy may be particularly well-suited for those who are seeking a philosophical and humanistic perspective on their life journey and a deeper understanding of their existence. Keep reading to learn Existential Therapy Activities you can do with your clients.
Mental Health Concerns That Can Benefit from Existential Therapy
Existential Therapy can be a great approach to use with clients who have mild to moderate mental health concerns. This includes individuals living with anxiety, depression, grief and bereavement, serious and life-threatening health conditions, those living with limitations and disabilities, and some traumatic experiences (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
Existential Therapy would not be appropriate for clients who are in an active crisis and those living with severe mental health concerns. This includes individuals living with mania, and substance use disorders (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Additionally, clients who are skeptical about Existential Therapy, or even the counseling process as a whole, would likely not benefit as much from Existential Therapy as they would from other treatment approaches.
Existential Therapy Activities
Utilizing Existential Therapy exercises can greatly enrich the counseling experience for clients. These exercises and activities are designed to foster authenticity and aid clients in their exploration of meaning, value, and purpose in life. Whether implemented in individual or group settings, Existential Therapy activities offer valuable support to clients who are receptive to this approach.
Examples of Existential Therapy activities that you can use in your work include:
- If you are interested in giving your client work to do outside of therapy, you can provide them with journaling prompts. You can then explore their journal entries during your next session and process their experience. Examples of prompts that you could provide include:
- One Existential Therapy exercise you could ask your client to complete would be to write about what they feel the purpose or meaning of their life is in a journal. Once they have identified their purpose or meaning, ask them to then write about three choices that they have made recently, and explore if these choices are supportive of their purpose and meaning. Allow for time in your next session to follow up about their journal entry, and discuss any changes that your client would like to make that would align their behavior and life meaning.
- If you could redistribute your time throughout your day, what changes would you make?
- What have you accomplished in your life that you are proud of?
- What is the most meaningful aspect of your life?
- Which values do you hold with the most importance? How do your behaviors support these values?
- When you wake up in the morning, what part of your day do you look forward to?
- What does your ideal vacation look like?
- If you learned that you had 6 months to live, how would you spend your remaining time?
- Another journal exercise that you can ask your client to complete would be to write down 2 or 3 of their top fears. Once these are identified, explore these fears to determine if any of them fall into the 4 inevitable human conditions outlined by Existential Therapy. From here, you can then work to identify and build upon the strengths that can support them in coping with the anxieties tied to these fears.
- Spend time exploring what the client’s most meaningful life would look like. What career would they have? What role would they have within their relationships? How would they treat others and how would they be treated in return? What would their friendships look like? Then take time to explore how their current life compares to what they feel would be the most meaningful life. Allow for time to discuss changes that your client could make to work towards aligning their meaningful life and their current life.
- Spend time providing psychoeducation about mindfulness practices, and the benefits that we can see within our mental health with regular use of various mindfulness practices. Allow for time to explore practices such as mindful eating, deep breathing, meditation, and mindful walking. Spend time exploring which activities sound appealing to your client, and encourage them to practice using mindfulness practices outside of the session. Follow up during your next session to process their experience and any impact they have experienced.
- When we introduce our clients to Existential Therapy techniques and beliefs, they will likely experience a situation where they need to learn new skills. Learning new skills can be overwhelming, which can create a barrier for our clients. One strategy that can be effective would be to explore a time when your client was able to learn a new skill, despite the challenges and difficulties they experienced. TherapyPatron.com offers a Learning New Skill Worksheet that can guide this exploration in a session.
- Allow for time to process their experience with this exercise, and explore how it applies to their current situation.
- Provide your client with a sheet that has a list of values. This can include things such as career success, being a parent, physical health, mental health wellness, fame or popularity, helping others, having independence, love, knowledge, power, spirituality, security, and safety. Ask your client to review the list, check off or highlight the values that they feel are important to them, and rank them from the most important to the least. Ask your client to then identify behaviors and choices they have made recently that support their values. Allow for time to explore changes they could make to their behaviors that would align more with their values.
- Experiencing hardships and challenging situations is a natural occurrence. While we cannot control the events that take place around us, we can control how we respond to these experiences. TherapyPatron.com offers a worksheet that explores how your client coped with an Event That Went Poorly, and how they felt during the event. Additionally, TherapyPatron.com offers a worksheet that explores similar aspects of an Event That Went Well.
- TherapyPatron.com offers a Taking Responsibility Worksheet that can be used to explore the choices that your client has made recently and the impact those choices had on their life. This supports the goal of learning to be more aware of our choices.
TherapyPatron.com offers worksheets that can be used to explore your client’s experience with the 4 worlds of human existence, and where they feel their place is in each. This includes the Personal World, Spiritual World, Social World, and Physical World.
Final Thoughts on Choosing Existential Therapy Exercises for your Clients
Thank you for reading this resource on 10 Existential Therapy activities and exercises to do with your clients. Existential Therapy activities can be implemented across various clinical settings to address concerns such as low self-esteem, grief, depression, and anxiety. The flexible nature of Existential Therapy allows for customization of treatment approaches according to each client’s unique needs.
By creating a non-judgmental, safe, and supportive environment, clients are empowered to progress at their own pace in their search for meaning, purpose, and value in life. Counselors can offer psychoeducation on coping strategies and skills to navigate life’s challenges. Additionally, providing clients with guidance and encouragement as they make changes aligned with their values contributes to their overall well-being.
If you’re interested in delving deeper into Existential Therapy, consider discussing available training opportunities and continuing education credits with your supervisor. Supervision can serve as a valuable resource in determining your readiness to incorporate new techniques, strategies, and interventions into your clinical practice.
TherapyPatron.com helps mental health professionals better serve their clients. Our (editable, fillable, printable PDF) therapy worksheets can help you streamline your practice, effectively deliver different types of therapy, and support your clients be the best version of themselves.
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- Seligman, L. & Reichenberg, L.W. (2010). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills (3rd Edition, pp 170-190). Pearson Education, Inc.