Existential depression: when life loses its 5 purpose

Existential depression

intelligent people can suffer from a very special type of depression. It occurs when a person feels that life has no meaning, that there is a lot of injustice in the world, and that we are limited, lonely beings without real freedom.

Existential depression is a poorly known but frequent psychological disorder. Some of its features include the feeling that one does not live up to expectations, that life is meaningless, or that the world is unfair, full of injustice, and endless inequality.

This term may sound strange and even ill-advised from a clinical point of view. It’s true that existential depression doesn’t appear in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and that you probably don’t know anyone who has been diagnosed with it. However, it should be noted that it is a common mental disorder and that some people actually suffer from it.

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A history of existential depression

In 2012, Dr. Robert Seubert published a research article in the Journal of the European Psychiatric Association to highlight an important point:  a part of the population is not effective in conventional treatments for depression, which may be related to personality type and even high intellectual abilities.

Some people navigate other kinds of psychic realms where they ponder deeper questions and feel a kind of unusual suffering. 

Existential depression: definition, symptoms, and causes

Existential depression:

This type of depression might remind us of writers like Søren Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche. They talked about the principles of freedom and personal or individual responsibility, human loneliness, and that very classic concept of existential angst.

This last term refers to the fear of the future, the meaning of our decisions, and the fear of not living up to expectations. 

A lot, actually. One of the figures who has studied this mental disorder the most is Irvin David Yalom, Psychotherapist and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. One of his most significant works is Existential Psychotherapy. 

In it, he talks about the main characteristics that a person suffering from this type of depression manifests. As we will soon see, it is quite similar to the ideas that the most prominent representatives of existentialism in philosophy once conveyed.

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What are the symptoms of existential depression?

All depressions are multidimensional and complex phenomena. Each person experiences depression in their own way, and depression is usually accompanied by other disorders, such as anxiety. Existential depression has very specific features:

  • Irrelevance. A person does not find a purpose for his existence. He feels as if he is walking towards a void where nothing is unparalleled, genuine, or enriching to the mind.
  • The feeling that others do not understand him. The person feels like a freak in the world, in addition to loneliness.
  • Personal fulfillment remains unattainable. Society is limited, it has no means to promote creative, professional, human, or communal growth.
  • Suffering because of social injustice. Due to injustice or lack of freedom.
  • Repeated talk of death. Thoughts about the transience of human life.
  • Thinking about suicide is also common in this mental disorder.
  • Physical symptoms. Fatigue, insomnia, obesity, and eating disorders.

Existential depression is common in people with high intellectual abilities

Existential depression is rooted in a theory developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980). This approach is called positive disintegration, and is based on the following explanation:

  • A person can go through five stages of personal growth.
  • About 70% of the population does not progress beyond the first three stages.
  • 30% of the population, on the other hand, reaches the peak of personal development. But instead of bringing them more wisdom and well-being, it actually leads to an existential crisis. They don’t feel part of what society expects of them. 
  • This is what Dr. Dabrowski called “positive disintegration”. In other words, all individuals who reach that level have to reconstitute themselves and disintegrate in order to rebuild themselves.
  • It is common for these individuals to doubt themselves, feel anxious, and not find meaning in anything around them.
  • Such suffering is common in people with high ÄO. Such men and women most often suffer from existential depression.

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Treatment strategies

Can existential depression be treated? Like other mood disorders, this problem is also treatable.

Existential depression:

In general, it is important to individualize the treatment strategy and take each patient’s own needs into account. In addition to psychological therapy, some patients may benefit from medical treatment (anti-depressants). But how can one help a depressed person with high intelligence?

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a very good strategy. It helps patients to direct their thoughts toward a more positive attitude so that they can find a new purpose in life. In addition, it helps them set achievable goals, which means they get excited about the future again.
  • Emotion management needs to be worked on so that the most negative or difficult emotions do not affect them so strongly. The goal is to ensure that the patient continues to develop without the burden of anxiety or negativity.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy. This approach makes patients understand that the world is not always as we would like it to be. We must all accept uncertainty, contradiction, and injustice without letting suffering invalidate us. We must commit to setting different values ​​and goals.

Existential depression should be addressed, even if it is not found in medical textbooks

Although existential depression is not found in diagnostic manuals, there are effective strategies to treat it that increase the well-being of those who suffer from it. Although it may be difficult for the patient to go to the doctor for this, their feelings about the world around them eventually drive them to seek help. This might interest you…

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