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There are several different types of depression that people face today. One of them is existential depression, which is what this article shall discuss. We will start by answering exactly what depression is and what its symptoms are. Maybe you want to know how we can test for the condition; you’ll find that in this article as well, along with how to deal with existential depression and how it can be treated.

There are several different types of depression, and every individual can suffer from any kind. When a person’s depression is brought on by questions about the meaning of life, life itself, or death, this is known as existential depression. 

Existential Philosophy shows that human beings are driven to have internal meaning in their lives. By this, it means that we desire and want to select and do things that give meaning to us. Being completely free beings, we have full responsibility for our happiness or sadness. So, we strive to produce meaning in our lives in the form of family, relationships, charity, hobbies, religion, work, and more.

When you are facing problems with freedom, death, or life, you could face existential depression. If you start to ask yourself questions like ‘is my life only to work, create a family of my own, and die,’ you could be a patient of existential depression. Other questions that individuals who are suffering from such a condition tend to ask are:

  • Does anyone really care about me?
  • Will I ever find a person who truly understands and believes in me?
  • Is there a God, and where is the proof that he really cares?

You could ask any other questions that are triggered by a sense of hopelessness or having the feeling that your life has no meaning.

People who are going through clinical depression can also have problems related to existential questions and experiences. A lot of clinicians will provide therapy to not only address depression but also to explore life’s meaning with the client, which could help the client find the meaning they are searching for in their life.

It’s very common to question your existence and place in the world after going through trauma, religious trauma, loss, a crisis of faith, or any other life-altering event.

Existential questioning generally revolves around four main topics:

  • Death, inclusive of the awareness of its inevitability and what comes afterward;
  • Freedom, or the sheer magnitude of choices and the consequences of those choices available to you in life;
  • Isolation, or disconnection from others and the loss of those close to you eventually;
  • Meaninglessness, or wondering what the point of your life is

These situations, and the distress that accompanies them, is normally described as an existential crisis.

When you cannot answer these questions or accept life’s uncertainty, you may feel overwhelmed by the thought of living a life that has no purpose, deeper meaning, or connection.

This point of crisis mostly ends in positive growth, but it could also prompt feelings of despair. As a matter of fact, older research suggests existential concerns number among eight main reasons people list as a factor that contributes to their depression.

Existential depression usually involves some of the following symptoms:

  • A fixation on a deeper meaning of life or discovering your sense of purpose;
  • Sadness and hopelessness related to not being able to answer existential questions;
  • Having no hope about the fate of society, or the world in general;
  • Thinking of death, dying, or suicide frequently;
  • Being too afraid to die;
  • A sense of futility or helplessness when it comes to making something meaningful or creating a change in your life;
  • Realizing that the world is unfair or unjust;
  • The feeling of wanting more from life than everyday routines that seem mundane and unimportant;
  • Disconnection or detachment in your personal relationships, mostly due to your belief that they’ll eventually end, anyway;
  • The belief that nothing you do will make a difference, so you wonder why you should bother at all;
  • Loss of interest in the activities and hobbies you usually enjoy, often because these things seem pointless;
  • Hard to interact with individuals who seem unconcerned about existential concepts;
  • Loss of motivation or finding it difficult to make choices, mostly because you feel overburdened by the possibilities.

Feeling trapped in a search for deeper meaning, unable to move forward from the point of crisis, may prompt what Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski described as a “disintegration” of one’s self.

You could conclude by fixating on past mistakes or choices and feel bad about being unable to create a difference in the lives of others.

Existential depression may also result in your loss of touch with personal values and life goals, and you may also notice your sense of self starts to blur and lose meaning.

This combination of having a sense of helplessness, guilt, and detachment can lead to it becoming difficult to maintain your relationships or do things you once really enjoyed, which could contribute to feelings of isolation and loss of meaning.

Researchers have repeatedly suggested in the past that existential depression frequently occurs in “gifted” people. This spectrum includes artists, intellectuals, scientists, and overly sensitive people. But it is not exclusive to these individuals and can also occur in anyone else. But how does one know they have existential depression in the first place? Although there is no specific psychometric test to find this out, there are a set of symptoms and signs that indicate a strong likelihood of having existential depression. That said, there are tests that measure existential thinking and existential intelligence (a concept introduced by Howard Gardner), which can be an indicator of existential depression. The scale of Existential Thinking (SET) is an 11-item scale that measures a person’s existential thinking that is related to the meaning of their life, satisfaction with one’s life, and wellbeing.

Before moving on, let us recap symptoms of existential depression to be able to make better sense of the content;

  1. Feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness
  2. Disengaging from activities
  3. Devaluing a person’s own goals
  4. Excessive worry about death and/or fate
  5. Having thoughts of suicide
  6. Hopelessness
  7. Low esteem
  8. Engaging in alcohol or substance abuse due to empty thoughts
  9. Anxiety of guilt
  10. Feeling lonely and isolated
  11. Narcissistic behavior
  12. Perfectionist behavior
  13. Blaming others for situations in their life

Existential depression makes an individual feel that they have little to no sense of self. All these symptoms, and several more, lend a helping hand in making one feel isolated and without any concept of meaning in life. There is not a lot of research done on existential depression solely, but inferring deductions from other studies, such as that on existential thinking as described above already, can give us a better look at the topic. Moving forward, we will look at ways to deal with existential depression.

The process of dealing with existential depression involves becoming more and more comfortable with the lack of resolution and meaning – a difficult, albeit possible, process.

The first step is to create your own meaning and accept life as it comes. For example, if you fear losing someone you love, spend time with them to the fullest and let them know how much they mean to you. If you lack meaning in life, spend productive time with yourself and discover and connect with your own personal values such as curiosity, gratitude, empathy, creativity, and honesty. Having self-awareness and acceptance for oneself is also very important in coping with existential depression successfully. Focus on what you can do instead of what you cannot (which, a lot of times, is out of one’s hands altogether). Collect all your memories and achievements – this will allow you to keep negative, depressive thoughts at bay and concentrate on what makes you worthy and loved by yourself and others around you.

Next, try sharing your emotions and feelings with loved ones, even if it is a negative emotion. This can allow you to receive emotional support from a trusted source, which can potentially add meaning to your life. It is also important to practice mindfulness – strategies that help one stay in tune with the present, the here, and now. Shifting to the present can greatly add meaning to life and make it easier to find happiness in little things. It must be noted that ignorance is not the same as mindfulness, and we are not aiming to block out the existential depressive thoughts; we are only shifting our focus on more constructive happenings. Existential depression may lead a person to a constant state of sadness, emptiness, and pain. Acknowledging these thoughts and still recognizing the joy truly aids in swaying negative emotions away.

More often than not, professional guidance is key to treating existential depression. Therapists trained for the purpose help to manage feelings of depression whilst questioning the deep and challenging troubles of life in order to pave the way for meaning. There are two kinds of therapies that can be helpful in this case:

a. Humanistic therapy – here, one learns to accept themselves as who they are, finding a path that is customed to their potentials

b. Existential therapy – death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness are carefully accepted and integrated into one’s sense of self

Other treatment methods include the following:

1. Journaling – keeping a written journal of one’s thoughts and feelings has been proven to deal with several psychological problems, including existential depression. This will not only help put into perspective what is going on inside our heads, but it will also help identify patterns, know what triggers a depressive symptom, and also allow yourself to better comprehend the problem-, eventually arriving at a suitable solution.

2. Talking to someone and connecting with people – as mentioned, therapy is always a great choice, but even talking to friends and/or family can help a person resolve various problems contributing to their existential depression. Our relationships with others contribute quite a lot to our mood, so conversing with someone else is very likely to lift our mood.

3. Reframing thoughts and adjusting viewpoints – reframing your thoughts and shifting your lens, i.e., changing the way you look at things may be difficult to grasp the hang of, but ultimately it is very beneficial, productive, and healthy for mental health. A destructive mindset turned into a positive is something that comes out of this process.

4. Let go of the past – try and let the past be the past, move on from it. Focus on the present, as mentioned earlier. Do not hold on to past experiences, problems, traumas, and difficult events. Leave it all behind and find happiness in every small (or big) thing. Look ahead to go ahead in life.

5. TMS – this stands for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and is a therapy that is FDA approved and does not involve any type of surgical procedure or sedation. The individual is awake, and it utilizes technology similar to MRI that stimulates parts of the brain that control mood. It works by relieving depressive symptoms. A complete course lasts several weeks, and improvements are shown as early as four weeks.

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