Existential Depression: What is it, Symptoms and Treatments

Depression is the most common illness in the world. The WHO claims that 300 million people at any given moment may be facing depression. Depression is not just an illness, but a collection, based upon what the cause of the malaise is.

Existential depression is based upon worries about the meaning of life, given the fact that we all die and spend such a limited time on the earth. This is based upon the philosophy of Existentialism, which had proponents such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Philosophers such as these said that life doesn’t have any universal meaning that has been given by god, but that it must be chosen by the individual. As Sartre said “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” As a result, some people can fall into a depression and think their life has no meaning, or question the meaning of their existence.

How is existential depression different from other types of depression?

Existential depression is in many ways very similar to other forms of depression. It has many of the same symptoms, can often be treated in the same way and will often affect the same groups of people. However, some have suggested that the most gifted people are the most likely to suffer from existential depression.

In many ways, existential depression is the same as other forms of depression. However, the main reason that existential depression is different is the reason WHY people are depressed. Existential depression is caused by questions about meaning.

For example, it might arise as someone ponders their existence and asks questions such as ‘why does life have meaning if it is inevitable that I will die’ or ‘can a person ever truly know another. We mentioned Existentialism before, and this kind of depression can be explained in Existentialist terms.

As there is no God, or so existentialists claim, there can be no ultimate meaning to human life, no ultimate purpose, and no cosmic justice. What is also frightening for an existentialist is the fact that we have complete freedom to do as we wish, there is no boundary or structure to our life.

Given this, we must make meaning ourselves, and through doing this can live a meaningful live. Existential depression is the result of struggling with these issues.

Certain questions may pop into your mind if you suffer from existential depression. For example, you may ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ or ‘what’s the point?” This questioning about existential issues and ultimate questions is captured well by Albert Camus, who said "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.

Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest...comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer." He clearly understood existential depression, and in his own way was offering a method of treatment for existential depression: tackle the questions you may be asking about your existence. 

Existential depression symptoms

Though in many ways existential depression manifests itself in the same way as other forms of depression, and existential depression sets itself apart by its cause, existential depression can in some cases be set apart by some symptoms. Symptom include

• Low mood
• Tiredness
• A lack of motivation
• Disruption to work and daily life

Though symptoms particular to existential depression may be

• Feelings of sadness of numbness
• A lack of energy or concentration on daily tasks
• Lack of care over personal hygiene and lack of care over other mundane tasks
• Difficulty sleeping

However, as we have said, it is not so much the way in which existential depression manifests itself that is important, but the causes and questions that facilitate it, and also, of course, the way in which to eradicate it, which is of course the main wish of the patient or sufferer. 

Existential depression in gifted individuals

It is theorised that those who have a higher than average IQ are more likely to suffer from existential depression. Some say that some (the gifted) are able to see beyond banal facades and therefore that that they can feel different or detached from others because of this greater insight.

As we have seen, this form of depression may happen as a result of an important life event, or a catastrophic event in your life, or it can merely be the result of the weight of ultimate questions and concerns. Any of these things may result in one questioning the nature of life and their existence, and could lead to existential depression.

This is particularly the case in the gifted. This is perhaps because of the fact that those who are brighter are more likely to be sensitive, and idealistic, and they are more likely to be able to critique the world around them and the absurd nature of many of the things that happen.

This makes them more likely to ask questions that may result in difficult answers. They also may be acutely aware of the Minuscule nature of their existence in terms of the big picture and this may contribute to their depression.

There are a long list of well-known people who have become depressed due to their giftedness: Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, and the list goes on. This can help us to understand the link between being gifted and suffering from existential depression.

Or, as Blaine Pascal (a gifted man in his own right) put it “When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not, and which know not me, I am afraid, and wonder to see myself here rather than there; for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there, nor rather now than then”.

Gifted children are also more likely to be idealistic in their nature, as they are more likely to be able to speculate about the way in which they want the world to be. They are also more likely to question tradition and perceived notions. All of these things can also lead to existential depression, as they may help a person to realise inconsistency and arbitrary nature of many things in life.

However, this is perhaps not all bad. A Polish Psychologists named Kazimierz Dąbrowski thought he has come upon a way in which the tendency towards existential depression in the gifted could have positive results.

Dąbrowski lived though the Great War, and he saw that, though many people become shadows of their former selves due to the horrors that they had witnessed, some became better and more rounded people, and experienced profound personal growth.

Obviously, he wondered why. He developed the theory of positive disintegration as a result, which states that, due to a crisis or negative event, some may develop as people and find more meaning in their lives. So, existential depression can actually be the catalyst for growth and for increased meaning in life. 

Existential depression treatment

Given all of this though, obviously the most important thing is treatment, and how we could help manage the symptoms of those with depression. One possible treatment is Psychotherapy. There is actually a form of Psychotherapy that is specifically designed to treat existential depression. This method was pioneered by the Psychologist Irvin Yalom.

Existential psychotherapy is based upon Freudian psychotherapy and uses the principles of existential philosophy to inform its thinking. It follows from the works of existential philosophers such as Camus, Sartre and Heidegger, and utilises many of their concepts.

Though people may misconstrue this practice as very depressing, perhaps understandable given the canon of Existentialism (Sarte said ‘Hell is other people’, for example), it is in fact a very useful and practical form of therapy. This is because it allow the patient to confront the ultimate questions and concerns about meaning that they may have, and reflect upon the evil and the meaninglessness of life.

Thus, existential psychotherapy attempts to allow the patient to face the problems of the human condition (meaninglessness, the lack of god, alienation, despair, guilt) head on, rather than avoiding them.

As a result, those who suffer from existential depression may be able to understand and find the meaning of life in their relationships and become self-actualised through realising and understanding their authentic self, whatever they decide this to be.

This is in many ways influenced by the existential psychologist Rollo May, who claimed that we shouldn’t treat existential depression as merely a biological disorder. If we do this, we forget the very nature of the human being, and deny the very thing that is in fact causing their despair in the first place, and this will of course prevent them recovering from their malaise.

Thus, existential psychotherapy helps people to come to terms with the human condition, and to understand their perspective on the things that may be troubling them, such as meaning, death and the freedom to make our own choices.

As well as this, medication may also help. Particularly if you have a serious case and you perhaps need a crutch to get you back on your feet. Antidepressants are particularly effective as an adjunct to rherapy. Be aware though that antidepressants such as Prozac and Citalopram often take about two weeks to start working, so don’t expect instant results.

Existential depression, then, is focused squarely on the meaning of life and on the ultimate questions that one has to answer in order to find this meaning. Most people struggle with these questions. However, if this struggle becomes too tough, you may face existential depression.

This is particularly the case, as we have said, in those who are gifted. Finding treatment in therapy or in medication may provide relief from this condition that is becoming increasingly common.