The existential approach brings elements of philosophy and psychology into therapy to help you understand your place in your world. 

It focuses on the anxieties and uncertainties that are a fundamental part of life and existence, such as death, the fear of the unknown and the meaning of life. At its core is the idea that we all have the capabilities and personal responsibility for making decisions and creating our own success.

Our member Susie Masterson, a counsellor based in Stockport, says: “Existential therapy is about helping clients make sense of their place in their world: to find alignment between societal, cultural and individual expectations. It’s a very client focused, empowering way of working.”

The existential approach works with the present rather than delving into the past, although your previous life experiences are considered and help provide insight. It’s similar to the humanistic approach, as it’s client-centred. And many therapists use it integratively, which means alongside other types of therapy.

What are the principles of existential therapy?

There are many theories used in existential therapy, but it's main principle is that everyone experiences a level of anxiety about their existence. It’s important to accept that so you can reach your potential and build a positive future.

Existential therapy has four key themes, often known as pillars - death, meaning, isolation and freedom. These are big topics that often cause people anxiety. You work through your anxieties with your therapist to help you reach a point of acceptance.

Susie says: “I like to think of these pillars as anchor points to help clients make sense of their unique life experiences. Within the safe and non-judgmental parameters of therapy, clients can explore both their internal and external hopes and fears.”

She encourages her clients to face their anxiety and accept that life is uncertain so they can move forward with their lives.

What does an existential therapist do?

Your therapist's role is to support you to explore your existence and how that relates to the rest of humanity.

They will encourage you to voice your own views. They won’t judge you; they'll keep an open mind and provide you with a safe, supportive and honest space in which you can talk through your anxieties and uncertainties.

But your therapist will also challenge your assumptions and any contradictions in what you say to help you gain a new understanding. They’ll encourage you to make your own choices and take responsibility for your future.

What can the existential approach help with?

A main aim of existential therapy is to help people deal with the anxieties of life. But it can also help with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and a range of other issues.

Susie says: “Most of my therapeutic focus is helping clients make sense of their emotional response to their life experiences - whether this is trauma, loss, change or relationships."

Working existentially can also be helpful with life transitions and changes such as divorce, redundancy or retirement, illness or disability and aging.