Existential Depression

Let’s Define Existential Depression

How often have you heard someone who is depressed say “I am depressed because of …” Often when we think about depression, it is in relation to what may have caused or triggered it. Existential depression is no different. However, the exact cause may be harder to identify. Any type of depression can occur because of one or a combination of many things. Depression can result from biological and hormonal factors. Depressive episodes can be seasonal, situational, or intrapersonal.

Existential depression generally occurs in people during periods of deep reflection about the meaning of one’s life and the very purpose and meaning of existence. Although it is not a common diagnosis, according to one theorist of existential depression, Yalom, it can revolve around people’s concern and attempts to make sense of four main topics: death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.

Existential depression can occur after a major event such as bereavement, accident, natural disaster, job loss, and so forth. It may be also be experienced at different life stages. For example, the search for identity as someone moves from childhood and teenage years into early adulthood. Alternatively, during mid-life crises as someone navigates the transition and make sense of what it means to be so-called “middle age”.

Some believe that gifted people — gifted children, and gifted adults — are more likely to experience existential depression in their lives. Those creative, gifted, and talented people who actively search and question life’s meaning are often thought to be more prone to existential depression. The deep thinkers, the scientists, the sensitive people – the gifted individuals attuned to everything around them. Gifted children may find it especially difficult to navigate life if they have that intellectual excitability or thirst for knowledge, to explore more intellectually than others who may be around them.

There is also a premise that existential depression may be a part of, or a form of, a spiritual crisis. When someone questions and delves intensely into their overall belief system, or what their soul’s purpose or existence in life is actually for. Existential questions may be explored around faith or religion as a whole, or someone’s previously held beliefs about the existence of god(s), whether there is life after death, or elsewhere in the wider universe. They may question how much it actually all makes sense.

There is a theory that existential depression can be a positive catalyst for change and growth. That it forms part of the process of positive disintegration, a theory developed by Dabrowski. This idea behind this concept is that people, especially gifted and creative people, do learn and grow in a positive way from what they experience through traumatic experiences and life crises.

What is Existentialism

To understand existential depression, you need to understand a little about what existentialism is. Existentialism is a broad philosophy around the idea that life is what we make it. That as human beings we have the freedom and responsibility to choose and create our existence, and that we can and should, do so.

Depression Meaning

What is depression? Depression can range from a few days of feeling “blue” to weeks and months of poor mental health leading to clinical depression. Depression can take a few different forms and present via different symptoms, but at the core, it involves a numbing or impact on what is considered a “normal” range of feelings and emotions. Depression can involve persistent feelings of sadness, a lack of motivation and energy, feelings of being useless or worthless, anger, guilt, and loneliness. Someone who is seriously depressed may not enjoy things that they used to, and not participate in activities with others. They may feel weight down and incapacitated for long periods.

What is Existential Anxiety

Existential anxiety, also known as existential angst, is feelings of panic, agitation, or dread about the nature of their individual or human existence as a whole. The stress of weighing up and thinking about choices and possibilities for the future may become overwhelming and result in feelings of panic or anxiety. Any existential related thoughts such as “what am I doing with my life”, may result in a panic attack or other symptoms of anxiety.

Signs of Existential Depression

An episode of existential depression, like other forms of depression can vary in intensity and severity. Signs or symptoms of existential depression may include:

  • An intense or obsessive interest in the bigger meaning of life and death. The interest in exploring this may override a person’s enjoyment and engagement with other day-to-day activities.
  • Extreme distress, anxiety, and sadness about the society they live in, or the overall state of the world.
  • A belief that changes in anything are both impossible and futile.
  • Increasingly becoming, and feeling, disconnected, isolated, and separate from other people.
  • Cutting ties with other people because they feel like connections with others are meaningless or shallow and they are on a completely different level.
  • Low motivation and energy levels to do anything they would normally do.
  • Questioning the purpose, point or meaning of anything, and everything, in life.
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings.  

Feelings of Meaninglessness

If someone feels like their life is completely empty of anything meaningful they are said to be in an existential vacuum, an empty place. Anyone experiencing feelings of meaningless is most likely unable to see the purpose of anything they are doing, or feel like what they are doing is worthless. For example:

  • If they have just experienced bereavement, they may question the point of living if you are going to die anyway.
  • If they are in a job they feel is going nowhere or they have no autonomy over what they do, they may become despondent and stop putting in any effort.
  • If they are experiencing difficulties in forming relationships, they may give up on trying to cultivate connections with other people.

Existential Crisis Definition

The term existential crisis usually refers to the moment when a person metaphorically hits the wall. During a full-blown existential crisis, everything may be too much and seem pointless – from getting out of bed, to basic personal hygiene, to turning on a TV or radio and hearing what is going on in the outside world. Someone in existential crisis may experience existential aloneness, that there is no one else who can relate to how they feel in their lives. An existential crisis may occur during life stages where there is a change in, or loss of self-identity, such as adolescence, or seemingly come on suddenly.

Treating Existential Depression

Existential depression is a serious condition, but it is treatable. There are overlaps with symptoms of other mental illnesses that a health professional may explore and consider. If you think you or someone you know may be experiencing existential, or any other kind of depression:

Talk and seek help: Seek a psychotherapist or similar type of therapy that can help with ways of exploring the search for the meaning of life in a healthy way. Many health professionals and therapists already use an existential approach as part of treatment or a method to help people in their lives. There are also therapists who specialize in existential psychotherapy. Existential therapy may help you to:

  • Focus on what is possible: It may not be possible to change everything in the world that you would like to right now. Break it down and start with baby steps to move forward into what is possible.
  • Process grief: If you have been through a death or experienced some other kind of major loss of something big in your life, find ways to work through it. Grieving is a progress that involves stages of working through acknowledging, accepting and moving on to a different reality.
  • Find your passion: If you have lost interest in things you used to do, explore something new. Think back to what you loved doing and creating when you were very young. It might have been something like learning to cook something new, and something you can do right now. Alternatively, follow up on something you have always had a slight curiosity about but never quite got around to learning more.
  • Accept yourself and others: If you have become disconnected or have feelings of isolation from others because you feel different, accept that people can be unique. Find things about yourself and others that you can celebrate, embrace, and learn from.
  • Think about it as a journey:  It may sound cliché, but one of the key things about existentialism is that we make our own path or journey in life. If you are overwhelmed or stuck with where you are and what to do next, accept that you may have hit a road bump before you take your next small step.

Existential Depression: Bottom Line

The bottom line with any form of depression, existential depression included, is that there is hope and a way out. This form of depression often comes from a very deep place within very sensitive and gifted individuals and existential therapists are out there to help.









author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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