Before we can understand existential depression, we must learn about what existentialism is as a whole. Existentialism is a school of thought that recognizes an individual as a free agent in their life. It focuses on the subjective nature of experience.
The father of this philosophy was Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher. He believed that every individual is responsible for giving meaning to life and living it. To him, action and decisiveness were fundamental components of human life.
Existential thoughts are part of our experience of being human. These can arise from looking deep into ourselves and our identity and trying to find answers about the nature of the universe.
Some people encounter these deeper questions about life and find that they pass naturally. In those who go on to develop existential depression, these questions persist and can lead to distress and symptoms of depression.
Existential depression is understood as a great sense of despair around the meaning of your life and existence. Existential depression is a profound inner conflict that revolves around a feeling that your life lacks meaning. Currently, existential depression does not have a formal diagnosis; however, this does not make it any less of a real experience.
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An existential crisis is characterized by feelings that life is lacking in meaning. It is associated with the many questions and feelings that result from questioning life itself. It can be a scary and isolating experience.
Without answers to these questions, it can be hard to get out of these thought processes. Generally, an existential crisis is transient, and many individuals are able to overcome it without professional guidance.
Depression¹ is a mood disorder characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest. It is generally caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Existential depression is a more severe form of an existential crisis. In this instance, more external support may be required. Depressive symptoms interfere with day-to-day life and can be challenging to address without professional support.
A wide variety of factors can cause existential depression. In some individuals, a significant or traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one, may trigger existential depression.
Significant life changes, not feeling confident about the direction of your life, and other stressors can all play a role. Social isolation can also play a part in causing existential depression.
Existential depression often centers around four key issues. These are death, isolation, an overwhelming sense of freedom, and meaninglessness.
Death is an inevitable consequence of life. Freedom refers to the lack of an inherent structure in our lives — we all must apply a structure to live. Isolation comes from the realization of the transience of relationships, and the lack of connection felt even when around others. Finally, meaninglessness is the intersection of these three issues.
Existential depression is deeply intertwined with the grieving process. Grief can be caused by the loss of a loved one or a diagnosis of a chronic illness. These kinds of events send many of us into a pursuit of making sense of the world in a new light and finding order in the chaos.
The loss of a meaningful relationship can lead to a sense of temporary meaninglessness. Events as significant as these can feel hard to put into words — while all of us have to experience grief in our own lives, it can feel like such an individual and isolating experience. It takes time to put words to these experiences and understand their impact on you.
Stressful life events
Being unsure of one’s identity
Because existential depression is not clinically recognized, it can be challenging to estimate its prevalence. Existential crises are common — everyone can experience an existential crisis at some point.
It has been identified that global levels of anxiety and depression have increased by 25%² since the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that existential depression may also be increasingly common in recent years.
You might be more prone to experiencing existential depression if you have a family history of depression, particularly maternal depression.³
Existential depression is often described as being quite common in gifted individuals. This is thought to be the case as people who are more talented tend to be more sensitive and inquisitive about the world around them, recognizing how small they are on the larger scale of the world and desperately trying to address the many problems in the world.
Many famous musicians, artists, and authors have experienced existential depression, including Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath.
Existential depression can present itself in many different ways. There are some hallmarks to be aware of, in particular, a specific line of questioning about your life and its meaning that can become harmful:
Considering what life and death mean: In some ways, being aware of death can cause you to fully engage with life, as it guides you to find meaning and purpose in the time you do have. However, with existential depression, you can feel anxiety around aging and fear of death.
Questioning your relationships and sense of connectedness: Friendships and relationships can be in a state of flux for much of your life, which can lead you to question their purpose when they all appear to be so temporary.
Believing that change is impossible: When everything in your life is brought into question, it can leave you with the sense that nothing is in your control, and consequently, there is no possibility of making changes in your life.
Common symptoms of depression: Fatigue, loss of interest in activities, and persistent sadness. Activities like showering, shopping, and spending time with friends can seem daunting and pointless when your head is constantly filled with questions about the meaning of your existence.
Anxiety and stress: Not having answers to the many questions you have about your life can take a toll, as you are left with many unknowns, making it hard to face the world as your full self.
Other common signs and symptoms of existential depression include:
Difficulty making decisions
Loss of the meaning of goals
Loss of your values
Unhealthy substance use
Existential depression can cause you to pull away from meaningful relationships around you as you struggle to understand their meaning or purpose. You might also withdraw from your work and other activities you’re engaged in.
While it’s easier to consider the immediate negative impacts of existential depression, it is also important to contemplate the long-term benefits you may get from it.
Something to consider is the significant positive impact existential depression can have on your life. While it can take a huge toll on your well-being, having the opportunity to reevaluate your life values and guide the direction of your life with more certainty means that you can pave the road toward the life you wish to lead. In loving yourself, you get to rebuild yourself consciously.
In the short term, you may see the impacts of pulling away from people around you and things you once considered important. In the long run, however, you’ll find yourself seeking and holding onto deeper relationships and experiences that stay true to the person you wish to be.
Because existential depression is not yet formally diagnosed, your doctor would likely diagnose you with major depressive disorder (MDD). Generally, MDD is diagnosed after the doctor has taken an extensive clinical history of the patient and subsequently carried out a mental status examination.
According to the DSM-V criteria, five of these nine symptoms must be present for a diagnosis of depression:
Guilt feelings or thoughts of worthlessness
Depressed mood or sadness
A key underlying part of existential depression is questioning your “why” in life. You are continually trapped in cycles of asking yourself why you are here, why you are who you are, and why you have different experiences and relationships.
To turn this into an active thought process, you can use these questions as tools. You can start asking questions like:
How do I want to live my life?
What kind of values do I want to represent?
What types of people do I want to have around me?
Beyond this, there are many other steps you can take for yourself to help deal with your existential depression.
Sometimes when our mind gets busy, it can be hard to identify specific thoughts, where they are coming from, and what to do about them. Writing your thoughts down regularly (daily, once a week, or every once in a while) can help you articulate what is on your mind and break large thought processes or problems into smaller components.
When you are experiencing existential depression, most of your time is spent focusing on factors outside of your control. It may help you to spend time reminding yourself of things you can take command of — for example, that you determine your values, how you treat others, and your perception of yourself.
When it comes to engaging in particular activities, a little bit can go a long way. Taking up activities like volunteering, or going for a run, can have huge mood-boosting effects. As well as this, choosing activities that generally make you feel like you’re impacting the world can help you to step away from that existential line of questioning you may engage in.
Set aside time every day to appreciate and acknowledge the person you are, the unique perspective you bring to the world, and the impact you have had on people around you already. In time, this will show you all the good you have already created in your life and guide you toward creating more of this positive impact on the world around you.
The boundary between having an existential crisis and experiencing existential depression is not very clear-cut. In some people, having an existential crisis is manageable — it passes with time and leads to making changes in their lives.
If you find you are experiencing more depressive symptoms or your daily life is becoming significantly impacted, then this is a strong indicator that professional guidance may be the best option for you.
If your depressive symptoms are significantly interfering with your daily life, then medication may be a beneficial option. Note that antidepressants alone won’t necessarily alleviate symptoms. They are often much more effective when administered in combination with therapy.
There are different types of antidepressants out there. The first-line medication for depression is usually selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). If these are ineffective, other options include tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors.
Common options for therapy include cognitive behavior therapy and interpersonal therapy. In CBT, you spend time with your therapist looking into your thoughts and how they link to your mental and physical sensations.
CBT addresses overwhelming problems by breaking them down into smaller parts. In this way, you can interrupt unhelpful thought processes and replace them with healthier thoughts, making small changes to your emotions and behavior.
In interpersonal therapy, the emphasis is placed on your relationships and addressing things like social isolation or losing a loved one. Like cognitive behavior therapy, it focuses on unhelpful thoughts or behavior patterns. It differs in that it only tackles thought processes relating to interpersonal relationships.
Often, patients receive either therapy or antidepressants. However, evidence⁴ shows they are more effective in combination, so talk to your doctor to determine the best option for you.
Remaining curious about the world around you can be fun and exciting. Sometimes, being acutely aware of the world and your actions can be challenging — it can be hard to find a direction and stay focused on the important things.
If you feel that your existential thoughts about your life are becoming hard to control or bringing you down, this may be a sign to reach out to loved ones or seek professional guidance.
You deserve to confidently take advantage of what life offers you and be surrounded by fulfilling relationships and experiences. Existential depression can be addressed, helping you alleviate your symptoms and feel yourself once again.
An existential crisis can occur at any point in life. However, it’s common to experience an existential crisis to some degree during your 20s. There are a few reasons they peak around this age — you leave the safety net and routine of a school and home environment. Around this age, many individuals leave home and step into new unknowns. This also involves taking on more responsibility, and often this sense of growth can lead to questioning the meaning of your life.
Most people consider their life to have purpose and meaning. In those having an existential crisis, this feeling dissolves. One example of this might be an athlete who has devoted years of their life to running and intends to pursue it as both a hobby and a career. But following a significant injury, they can no longer participate in the activity they love and have built their identity around.
This can lead to a cascade of internal questioning — who are they now, and what is providing them with meaning?
COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide | World Health Organization
Existentialism | New World Encyclopedia
Dabrowski’s theory and existential depression in gifted children and adults | Positive Disintegration