A person with existential depression may experience an ongoing feeling of hopelessness and a struggle to find meaning in life. These symptoms can disrupt a person’s life and leave them feeling isolated.
People with existential depression might be unable to stop ruminating over unanswerable questions, leaving them in a constant state of despair.
Experts have largely associated this type of depression with “gifted” people. However, although researchers have investigated existential depression, it is not a formally recognized diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. Instead, a doctor may diagnose a person experiencing these symptoms with major depressive disorder (MDD).
This article looks at existential depression in more detail, including how it can affect gifted individuals, how it compares with existential dread, and how to cope.
A person with existential depression may feel depressed for many reasons, and their symptoms can be similar to those of other types of depression. However, as existential depression is not a clinically recognized diagnosis, a doctor would likely diagnose the person with MDD.
All types of depression have triggers that further examination can uncover. Existential depression may develop when a person frequently contemplates life and reflects on things that produce a profound sense of hopelessness or unhappiness.
When a person considers questions about life and existence that have no answers — such as what the meaning of life is, why people suffer, or what happens after death — they may have difficulty finding the meaning. Searching for reason in injustice, pain, and unhappiness, where none is forthcoming, can lead to an existential crisis.
Existential questions focus on four main topics:
- Death: The individual might consider death’s inevitability and what comes after death.
- Meaninglessness: A person may wonder what the point of life is.
- Isolation: Feelings of isolation may result from a lack of connection with others and the breakdown of important relationships.
- Freedom: The person may ponder the overwhelming multitude of choices and consequences in life.
Existential depression may also include a person focusing on questions such as “why me?” They may question their very existence after experiencing a trauma, a serious illness, or other life altering events.
If a person does not manage to accept, in time, that some of these questions are unanswerable, they may be left with an ongoing sense of despair. An inability to stop ruminating on the same questions can result in a person experiencing ongoing existential depression.
Existential depression may involve something that psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski termed a disintegration of the self. This can happen after:
- losing touch with life goals and values that were previously important
- feeling guilt and a fixation on past choices and mistakes
- feeling detachment and helplessness
- losing interest in previously enjoyed activities
- detaching from loved ones and experiencing the breakdown of relationships
- losing one’s sense of self
In the 1970s, Dabrowski developed a complex theory of personality development called positive disintegration. According to this theory, some people can handle and reflect on traumatic events better than others. He suggests that these people are able to progress and grow through five levels of personality development, ultimately reaching a new authentic identity and sense of self.
Dabrowski proposes that people who can meaningfully turn difficult experiences into betterment possess overexcitability, meaning that they are gifted in some way. These people may have an exceptionally powerful imagination or intellect and have a heightened response to the senses. They may also be more empathetic and emotional than other people, as well as more energetic.
According to the theory of positive disintegration, as well as other research, a person should not characterize existential depression only by its negative consequences. Existential depression may help a person understand their values and identity.
Existential dread and existential depression are closely linked. However, although most people will experience existential dread at some point in their life, not all people experience existential depression.
Existential dread is not uncommon. It is likely that most people, at some point, become overwhelmed by the mysteries of life. It is not unusual to become distressed by the unanswerable nature of questions such as, “what is the point of life?,” and “why do bad things happen?”
Many people will face challenges in life that force them to question themselves and their beliefs. The death of a loved one, the diagnosis of an illness, the breakdown of a relationship, or any other kind of trauma may make a person question the foundations of their life.
However, existential dread usually passes with time, and people can generally manage it with introspection and support from others.
Unlike existential dread, existential depression causes ongoing symptoms that affect a person’s quality of life.
However, it may develop from existential dread. Repeatedly cycling through unknowable existential questions may lead to depressive symptoms, such as:
- difficulty maintaining relationships
- loss of meaning
- loss of happiness
- thoughts of suicide and death
- loss of motivation
- dissatisfaction with life
- loss of identity
Coping strategies may help a person break the cycle of existential dread and depression.
Use uncertainty to grow
As the theory of positive disintegration suggests, existential depression can be useful in helping a person grow and progress to a new, more authentic self. Approaching difficult situations with questions can help a person reframe existential depression.
Seek professional help
A person may find it helpful to contact a mental health professional.
Some therapists have undergone formal training in existential therapy. This type of therapy does not focus on solving issues, as existential issues are fundamentally unsolvable. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of processing thoughts and experiences to reduce fear of the unknown.
A person may develop existential depression if they are unable to stop ruminating on unanswerable existential questions. The individual may feel hopeless and fear that there is no meaning or purpose to life.
A person may be able to cope with existential depression by using mindfulness techniques, creating their own meaning in life, and seeking professional help.