Do you often battle feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness? Have you always struggled to identify your place in the world?
You might be suffering from existential depression.
This condition can be truly perplexing and frightening at the same time. As you try to reconcile your thoughts with your actions, and your life with its meaning, you may face terrible anxiety, self-doubt, confusion, and panic.
This article will attempt to provide some relief from these feelings. First, it will explore the roots of existential depression, then look at the common signs of sufferers, and finally explore some potential paths away from this spiritual ailment.
Are you ready to begin?
The Birth Of Existential Depression
Life as a young child is fairly narrow. You are effectively closed off from the outside world and you learn most of what you know from those closest to you: parents, siblings, wider family members, and early friends.
Your ideas of life, your morals, your views, and your understanding of what constitutes acceptable behavior are all fashioned by what you witness among this small group of people.
Then, as you get older, your exposure to outside influences grows. Your ability to communicate improves, you begin to understand more complex ideas, and you interact with more diverse groups of people.
Suddenly, your worldview is frequently challenged as you encounter beliefs, traditions, behaviors, and lifestyles quite different from your own. You might begin to question what is right and what is wrong. Or rather, who is right and who is wrong.
These are the first green shoots of existential depression and they are pretty much universal. Most people at some stage in their life, will go through a period where they begin to question everything they have ever been taught. For some, this will pass quickly and painlessly, but others might dwell in such a state for a very long time.
Others, still, might bounce in and out of this most thoughtful place repeatedly throughout the course of their lives.
Existential depression needn’t necessarily follow. Many people will ponder the deep questions of life, meaning, and the universe quite happily; some will even relish the challenge of contemplating the unanswerable.
Yet for a few, this questioning can spiral downwards into a depressive state where the very purpose of your life is cast into doubt.
Yalom’s Ultimate Concerns
In his book Existential Psychotherapy, psychiatrist Irvin Yalom theorized that there are 4 primary causes of this type of depression. These ‘ultimate concerns’ as he put it are, in his view, fundamental concepts that sufferers will almost inevitably confront.
These are: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.
Death is, as you’d expect, related to the inevitable ending of our physical lives and how this relates to the cessation of our mental and spiritual forms. We are all mortal in the physical sense, but the inability to see beyond the death of our bodies can be a source of anguish.
While some people have faith in an afterlife of varying forms, others wrestle with the abrupt conclusion of the “self” that death brings. If death awaits us all, then what is the point in living?
Freedom is something which humans have fought wars for down the centuries, and yet Yalom postulates that the mind has an uneasy relationship with this very concept. Freedom comes from the lack of structure that we are exposed to from the day we are born. While we may live in a world full of laws and traditions, we are not bound by them.
Freedom is the responsibility to make choices, to act one way or another, to forge a path of our own making. A terrifying principle, wouldn’t you agree? For if we are truly free, then we have to face the prospect of making poor choices, of walking a lesser road than might have been possible, of not fulfilling the potential we were given.
Isolation is another rather troubling idea. You see, as beings, we are defined by our interactions with other people, objects, and creatures. Yet no matter how well acquainted we may become with some foreign body, we can never know its essence. We can never experience what it is to be that person, thing, or life form.
Just as we cannot fully know the other, they are unable to ever fully know us. Our consciousness is closed off to all outsiders; it is for our eyes only. The conclusion to this line of thinking is that we are utterly alone in our existence. We look out onto a world that can be viewed, heard, touched, but it is not us and we are not it.
Meaninglessness is the culmination of death, freedom, and isolation. When faced with our temporary, uncertain, and lonely existence, some minds fall into a dark place devoid of hope and significance.
The very meaning of life is lost and a person enters into a state of existential depression.
Given that we will all question who we are and what we stand for at some point in our lives, why isn’t a downwards spiral into existential depression an inevitability? Why do some people suffer and others not?
This is, naturally, a question that can be asked of all forms of depression, and while it there is no single, clear-cut answer, there are some clues.
One road into this dark place is through a tragedy or loss that hits deep in a person’s heart. Examples of such events are: the passing of a loved one, a great disaster (natural or manmade), an abusive episode in one’s past, a severe injury to oneself, a diagnosis of ill health, or other sudden upheavals.
These can cause the resurfacing of questions and existential concerns that have long since been put to rest. All of a sudden, your reality has shifted and your view of life and the world around you changes.
Faith is a second potential reason why some people experience existential depression while others do not. Whatever your opinion of it, religion acts as a great anchor in the lives of those who practice it. Religion provides answers (whether correct or not) to the underlying questions that we all ask of life. It is a source of peace and comfort; a lighthouse in the dark and stormy seas of life.
Of course, you don’t have to practice a mainstream religion to have faith. You may have faith in your own beliefs, your own views, your own heart and soul. Whatever form it takes, faith is like a spiritual immune system, preventing the existential diseases that threaten the mind.
A lack of faith – or even losing one’s faith – can put you at higher risk of this form of depression. Again, it’s important to note that not all those who live without faith will suffer, and not all those who have faith will be impervious to this affliction.
Thirdly, psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski speculated that the onset of existential depression was more likely in an individual who was in some way gifted. Such people will often be of higher than average intelligence, for to deliberate over the meaning of your own existence requires prolonged and concerted mental effort.
Creative individuals are, according to Dabrowski, also more prone to question their own existence in some way (sometimes as part of their work) and there are countless examples of artists, writers, and poets who have wrestled with this form of depression. Great thinkers, scientists, philosophers, and leaders also belong to this ‘gifted’ group and are more likely to face down the problems of life and meaning.
Dabrowski theorized that gifted individuals are more acutely aware of the vast spectrum that life occupies. They see the infinite web of connections between people, the influence a person has on his surroundings, and the diverging paths that stem from the choices we face. They see all this and they are intuitively aware of the great potential that surrounds them. They form idealistic views of what could be, that are then shattered by the harsh reality of the world that actually exists.
They are highly sensitive to the injustices in society and the unfair and unequal opportunities afforded to different members and groups. They yearn to be a force for good, to rebalance the scales that have for too long favored some over others. What starts as a positive desire can quickly descend into disillusionment and despair as they realize the limits of their influence. They can envisage how things might be, but they are unable to make a meaningful impact. This can ultimately lead them to question their own existence and the purpose of life, if there is any.
Tragedy, a lack of faith, and being gifted are not the only origins of existential depression, but they are the major ones. And as mentioned, not all those who fit one of these molds will fall into a depressive state; they are merely indicators of heightened risk.
Signs Of Existential Depression
A depressive crisis of the existential kind can be identified by looking for some of these common symptoms:
Interest (that borders on obsession) in asking deep questions about life, death, the universe, and the purpose of it all.
Loss of interest in pretty much everything else because it is seen as meaningless.
Feelings of disconnection, separation, isolation, and loneliness (you cut ties with people in your life and feel like you don’t fit in anywhere).
An intolerance for the status quo of society.
Functional paralysis caused by the absence of motivation or inspiration (i.e. you can’t bring yourself to do anything of substance).
Feelings of being numb or empty.
Low energy levels.
Thoughts of suicide.
Existential depression, like most other kinds, can come in various degrees of severity. Identifying the signs early is an important part of treating and overcoming the illness.
Tackling Existential Depression
Disclaimer: none of what follows should be considered as clinical or professional advice. Depression is best treated by professionals and the points below are designed to compliment this.
Talk to someone: even if you feel as though all personal connections are pointless, it is worth trying a talking therapy of some kind. Logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy developed by Viktor Frankl, might be most suited to existential depression as it deals with the search for meaning in our lives.
Accept the uncertainty: one thing that bothers many sufferers is the sheer quantity and scale of the unknowns involved. No amount of thinking or searching will ever bring you to a definitive answer to the questions of why and how we should live. The mysteries surrounding death, the universe, free will, or purpose will forever remain hidden, and accepting this can lift the burden of one’s incessant contemplation.
Focus on what you CAN do: chances are you have reached the conclusion that your influence over the world is limited. Rather than let this get you down, try to consider all of the many small ways that you can and do impact those around you. Understand that while your reach may be limited, the potential to have a positive effect on those within it is not.
Grieve: if you’ve suffered a loss or witnessed a tragedy, you need to let yourself grieve. Grieve not only for others that have departed, but also for those parts of yourself that you can no longer identify with. Crises of existence invariably make you question your morals, your choices, your personality, and your life so far; you have to let these go if they are to lose their hold over you.
Embrace differences: to address the feelings of disconnection and isolation, you ought to accept and, finally, embrace the fact that you are unique from everyone and everything else. Rather than see this as a bad thing, try to view it as an opportunity to engage with entities quite distinct from your own. Yes, you will never be able to be them, feel as them, see as them, but you can learn from them and come to better understand their version of reality. Don’t assume the existence of absolute wrongs and rights, but comprehend the diversity of culture and of opinion.
Existential depression is a serious condition, one that is sometimes overlooked by healthcare professionals or mistaken for some other pathology. Understanding what it is and where it comes from can help you to address the issue and find a treatment that is effective.
Based on the information above, do you think you have ever suffered from existential depression (whether diagnosed or not)? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts and experiences.