Existential depression is a kind of depression brought on by questions about the meaning of life and the acknowledgment of death.1 Therapists trained in existential therapy can help people articulate their beliefs and identify what helps bring the most meaning to their lives.
What Is Depression?
Depression is a serious mental health issue in which a person experiences symptoms such as social withdrawal, changes in sleep and appetite, and low mood—to name a few. Those struggling with depression often express feelings of melancholy, loss of motivation, and little interest in things that once brought joy.
What Is Existential Depression?
Existential depression involves not having personally satisfying answers to life’s major philosophical questions (e.g., “Why do people suffer,” “What is the meaning of life,” or “What happens after death?”). This can cause people to feel disconnected, resulting in an existential crisis that triggers depression. When a person’s philosophy and beliefs conflict, it can cause them to feel like an outsider, worsening their depression.
Often, when people undergo a great trauma or experience an unsettling event (like the death of a loved one or losing a job), their understanding of themselves and their place in the world often changes, causing them to temporarily “fall apart,” experiencing a type of depression called existential depression.2
Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals
Many experts believe that “gifted” people with a higher intellectual capacity (e.g., artists, scientists, or philosophers) may be at a greater risk for experiencing existential depression. Because thoughts related to existential depression typically involve significant self-reflection and analysis and not superficial observations, gifted individuals are considered more predisposed.3
One theory is that gifted individuals tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see how the world falls short of their ideals. Unfortunately, they also recognize that their ability to make changes is limited.4
Existential Dread Vs. Existential Depression
Existential dread is a feeling of uncertainty of what your life may look like in the future. You may be in an in-between situation in your life in some way, and may have anxiety or anxious thoughts about your future. You may be worried about a lack of control of some kind. Onset of existential dread can also be due to a particular situation, such as a toxic job, losing a job, ending a relationship, moving to a new place, death of a loved one, etc.
Existential depression is a kind of depression in which someone does not have nor can find meaning in their existence as it is. They may lack any drive and often think of death and have higher suicidal ideation.
Existential Depression Symptoms
When thoughts about the purpose of your life, life choices, and the meaning of death become overwhelming, existential depression symptoms can occur. It can cause people to become paralyzed and overwhelmed. This often occurs after a traumatic event.
Common symptoms of existential depression include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Existential anxiety
- Feelings of sadness
- Feeling worthlessness and hopelessness
- Inability to get pleasure from anything (anhedonia)
- Questioning the meaning of life
- Focusing on thoughts of death and dying
- The belief that life has no meaning
- Holding yourself to impossibly high standards
- Rumination about ongoing regret regarding life choices
- Isolating yourself because you feel disconnected
What Causes Existential Depression?
An existential crisis is usually precipitated or triggered by a major life crisis like loss, illness, or a major change.
Potential causes for existential depression may include:5
- Grief related to the death of a parent or other loved one
- A chronic or debilitating illness
- Sudden changes in circumstances, such as a job loss
- Mid-life crisis
How to Deal With Existential Depression
There are many concrete actions you can take to help you to cope with and eventually overcome existential depression. It takes patience, time, willingness, and self-compassion.
Here are nine ways to deal with existential depression:
- Don’t ruminate about past decisions that you regret: you cannot change what happened in the past; focus on the present and positive future goals.
- Identify things that you’re passionate about: how can you incorporate these passions into your life to make it more meaningful.
- Meditate: meditation for depression helps to keep you in the present. It slows your body and helps clear your mind. Meditation can also foster a sense of peace and fend off disruptive influences.
- Journal to sort out thoughts, beliefs, and values: journaling helps to focus on the good, meaningful things in your daily life that make you grateful. Using journaling prompts for depression can help you sort out where your feelings are coming from and how to move forward.
- Reframe your perspective when a crisis occurs: ask yourself what you can do to get something positive out of the situation; try to view it as a new opportunity to bring meaning into your life.
- Reconnect with nature: nature can have a calming influence. Its beauty can heighten the senses and your awareness of what goes on around you. Just taking a walk outside can positively impact depression.
- Strengthen relationships: focus on the people in your life who energize you, strengthen your spirit, and bring meaning into your life.
- Find meaningful ways to enhance and contribute to the world around you: this could mean doing volunteer work, making financial contributions to important causes, or reaching out to help a relative, friend, or neighbor.
- Share your feelings: try to express complicated feelings with a friend, family members, or a therapist.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you find that your efforts to address existential depression have not yielded any changes or improvements, consider seeking out depression therapy from a mental health professional. Another reason to seek professional help is the emergence of suicidal feelings.7 If you’re ready to choose a therapist, start your search on a free online therapist directory.7
Types of Therapy to Treat Existential Depression
Find a therapist with expertise in logotherapy, existential therapy, or humanistic therapy:
- Logotherapy: logotherapy, developed by Viktor Frankl, uses an existential approach to help patients determine meaning in their lives.
- Existential therapy: existential therapy helps people get in touch with their authentic selves and face life challenges. It helps people who are wrestling with questions of identity, isolation, meaning, and anxiety.
- Humanistic therapy: humanistic therapy is another option for treating existential depression. Its person-centered approach to treatment helps patients understand their potential, guiding them through a path of self-discovery. It also helps identify personal strengths and explores questions surrounding free will.
Final Thoughts on Existential Depression
Existential depression can be challenging to overcome, but there are many ways to cope and move forward with your life. Exploring major life concerns, examining your priorities, and exploring your worldview can be powerful and life-changing. Guidance from a trained mental health professional can help you delve deeper into these complex questions.