Existential Therapy differs from other commonly used therapeutic approaches because it is more of a mindset or philosophy that can be applied to our work, rather than a list of specific interventions to be followed (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Existential Therapy can be described as a continuation of the work done by Carl Rodgers, incorporating the person-centered therapeutic approach. Keep reading to learn 10 Existential Therapy exercises and activities to do with your clients.
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There are a number of professionals associated with the development of Existential Therapy including Victor Frankl, Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, James Bugental, Ludwig Binswanger, and Medard Boss (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Since its development, mental health professionals have continued to develop and contribute to Existential Therapy. This means that the list of contributing professionals, in reality, is much longer than listed above.
Existential Therapy works to help our clients face the worries and uncertainties of their life, make decisions, and find meaning in their lives (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Existential Therapy believes that the root of most distress is tied to one of the four concerns of human conditions (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). The four concerns of the human condition include the inevitability of death, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom and responsibility (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). It is believed that each of us, at one point or another, will experience some form of anxiety regarding each of the areas of the human condition (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
In response to the four conditions of being human, Existential Therapy believes that we have the ability to cope with and manage the inevitable by recognizing and building on our strengths (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Strengths that can be used include awareness, authenticity, freedom and responsibility, actualization, and making meaning (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
With Existential Therapy, Counselors work alongside their clients to help them find value, meaning, and purpose in their lives (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). Counselors encourage their clients to be authentic, and face fears that have been holding them back (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
Since Existential Therapy is not designed with a specific set of interventions, there is no time limit or requirement for its effectiveness. This allows us to tailor treatment to our clients, and keep the focus on their process. With that being said, there are three phases that typically occur with Existential Therapy (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
The beginning phase of Existential Therapy focuses on understanding our client’s awareness of themselves and the world around them, including their values, beliefs, histories, and choices they have made (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). The second phase encourages clients to use the information they have shared to find purpose, meaning, and value in their life while working to be authentic (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010). When clients feel as though they have found meaning, purpose, and value in their life, they are nearing the end of their treatment experience. At this point of treatment, clients should be able to accept that they will experience anxiety during their life and have found ways to effectively cope with the inevitable human conditions (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).
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
Existential Therapy exercises can be used to enhance a client’s experience in counseling. Existential Therapy exercises and activities can work towards helping clients learn to be more authentic as well as assisting as they search for meaning, value, and purpose in their life. Existential Therapy activities can be used in an individual or a group setting for appropriate clients.
Examples of Existential Therapy exercises that you can use in your work 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 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:
What is the most meaningful aspect of your life?
What have you accomplished in your life that you are proud of?
If you learned that you had 6 months to live, how would you spend your remaining time?
Which values do you hold with the most importance? How do your behaviors support these values?
If you could redistribute your time throughout your day, what changes would you make?
When you wake up in the morning, what part of your day do you look forward to?
What does your ideal vacation look like?
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.
TherapyByPro 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.
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.
TherapyByPro 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.
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. TherapyByPro 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. TherapyByPro offers a worksheet that explores how your client coped with an Event That Went Poorly, and how they felt during the event. Additionally, TherapyByPro offers a worksheet that explores similar aspects of an Event That Went Well.
Final Thoughts on Choosing Existential Therapy Exercises for your Clients
Thank you for reading this resource on 10 Existential Therapy exercises and activities to do with your clients. Existential Therapy activities can be used in a variety of clinical settings with clients who have concerns including low self-esteem, grief, depression, and anxiety. Existential Therapy has a flexible time frame that allows you to tailor your treatment approach to your client’s unique needs.
With a non-judgmental, safe, and encouraging environment, clients can work at their own pace to find meaning, purpose, and value in their life. Counselors can provide psychoeducation about strategies and skills that can be used to cope with the distress they experience throughout their lives. We can also provide our clients with support and encouragement as they work to make changes in their lives that allow them to live in a way that better aligns with their values.
If you are interested in learning more about Existential Therapy, speak with your supervisor about available training and continuing education credits in your area. Supervision can be a great resource when determining your readiness to utilize new techniques, strategies, and interventions in your clinical work.
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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.
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