Existential therapies: a meta-analysis of their effects on psychological outcomes

J Consult Clin Psychol. 2015 Feb;83(1):115-28. doi: 10.1037/a0037167. Epub 2014 Jul 21.


Objective: To review the evidence on the efficacy of different types of existential therapies: a family of psychological interventions that draw on themes from existential philosophy to help clients address such issues in their lives as meaning and death anxiety.

Method: Relevant electronic databases, journals, and reference lists were searched for eligible studies. Effects on meaning, psychopathology (anxiety and depression), self-efficacy, and physical well-being were extracted from each publication or obtained directly from its authors. All types of existential therapy for adult samples were included. Weighted pooled mean effects were calculated and analyses performed assuming fixed-effects model.

Results: Twenty-one eligible randomized controlled trials of existential therapy were found, from which 15 studies with unique data were included, comprising a total of 1,792 participants. Meaning therapies (n = 6 studies) showed large effects on positive meaning in life immediately postintervention (d = 0.65) and at follow-up (d = 0.57), and had moderate effects on psychopathology (d = 0.47) and self-efficacy (d = 0.48) at postintervention; they did not have significant effects on self-reported physical well-being (n = 1 study). Supportive-expressive therapy (n = 5) had small effects at posttreatment and follow-up on psychopathology (d = 0.20, 0.18, respectively); effects on self-efficacy and self-reported physical well-being were not significant (n = 1 and n = 4, respectively). Experiential-existential (n = 2) and cognitive-existential therapies (n = 1) had no significant effects.

Conclusion: Despite the small number and low quality of studies, some existential therapies appear beneficial for certain populations. We found particular support for structured interventions incorporating psychoeducation, exercises, and discussing meaning in life directly and positively with physically ill patients. It is important to study more precisely which existential intervention works the best for which individual client.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Existentialism / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Psychoanalytic Therapy / methods*
  • Psychotherapy, Group / methods
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Self Report
  • Treatment Outcome