Existential Depression: When Life Loses its Meaning

22 December, 2020
People with high intellectual capacities can suffer from a very particular type of depression. It appears when they feel that life has no meaning, that injustices abound and that we’re finite, lonely beings without true freedom.

Existential depression is a little-known, but recurrent, psychological condition. Some of its characteristics include feeling that you don’t meet expectations, that life is meaningless, or that the world is unfair, full of injustices, and infinite inequalities.

This term may sound strange to you, and even reckless from a clinical standpoint. It’s true that it doesn’t appear in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and, also, that you probably don’t know anyone who’s been diagnosed with it. However, we need to note that it’s a common psychological condition and that some people do suffer from it.

The 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 fact. A part of our society doesn’t respond to normal depression treatments, and this could be related to personality types and even to high intellectual abilities.

Some people navigate in other psychic universes, where they ask themselves deeper questions and feel a kind of unusual suffering. Feeling anxious about the future of the world or sadness for not finding the real meaning of life could make up a very particular type of depression.

A sad man.
Existential depression manifests in people with high intellectual abilities.

Existential depression: definition, symptoms, and causes

It’s possible that this type of depression takes us back to authors such as Søren Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche. They spoke about the principles of freedom and individual or personal responsibility, human loneliness, and that very classic concept of existential anguish.

This last term refers to a fear of the future, the importance of our decisions, and the fear of not becoming what one expects. What does all this have to do with existential depression itself?

Quite a lot, actually. One of the figures who has studied this psychological condition the most has been Irvin David Yalom, psychotherapist and emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. One of his most notable works is the book Existential Psychotherapy.

In it, he talks about the main characteristics a patient with this type of depression shows. As you’ll see, it’s quite similar to the ideas that most representative figures of existentialism in philosophy conveyed back in the day.

Read on to learn more: Everything You Need to Know About Stress, Depression and Anxiety

What are the symptoms of existential depression?

All types of depressions are multidimensional and complex phenomenons. Each person experiences depression in a different way and, in general, it’s usually linked with other disorders, such as anxiety. This type of reality has very particular characteristics. They’re the following:

  • Lack of meaning. The person doesn’t find meaning in their existence. It feels as if they’re moving into a void in which nothing is transcendent, authentic, or enriching to the mind.
  • Feeling that people don’t understand them. It’s when they feel like a stranger in the world, in addition to loneliness.
  • Not reaching personal fulfillment. Society is limited, as there are no mechanisms to promote creative, professional, human, and civic growth.
  • Suffering due to social injustice. Due to injustice and lack of freedom.
  • Rambling frequently about death. Thoughts about the fleetingness of human beings.
  • Suicidal ideation is also common in this type of psychological disorder.
  • Physical manifestations. Such as exhaustion, insomnia, hypersomnia, and eating disorders.

A common type of depression in people with high intellectual abilities

Existential depression is integrated into a theory that psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980) developed. This approach is called positive disintegration. It’s based on the following explanation:

  • People can go through five stages of personal development.
  • However, about 70% of the population doesn’t go beyond the first three stages. It’s a development that makes people get used to the guidelines set by society, until little by little, they find their place in it and adapt.
  • On the contrary, 30% reach the peak of personal development. But far from it provoking more wisdom or well-being, it leads them to existential crises. They don’t feel a part of what society expects from them.
    This is what Dr. Dabrowski called “positive disintegration”. In other words, whoever reaches that level is obliged to reformulate themselves, disintegrate, and build themselves up again.
  • However, it’s common for them to doubt themselves, feel anguished, and not find meaning in anything that surrounds them for some time.
  • This type of suffering is common in people with a high IQ, as these men and women most frequently suffer from existential depression.

This article may also interest you: What to Do and Say if Your Partner Has Depression

A woman who believes that life has no meaning.
Feeling that life has no meaning is one of the most recurrent ideas in people with existential depression.

Therapeutic strategies

Can we treat existential depression? Like any other type of mood disorder, this condition is also treatable.

In general, it’s important to individualize the therapeutic strategy and take each patient’s needs into account. In fact, in addition to psychological therapy, some patients may also benefit from pharmacological treatment (antidepressants). But how can a person with high intellectual abilities who suffers from depression be helped?

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is a very good strategy. It helps them direct those thoughts towards more positive approaches so that they can find a new meaning in life. Also, it helps them establish goals they can achieve, meaning they’ll get excited about the future again.
  • Emotional management must be worked on in order to reduce the impact of the most negative or complicated emotions. The goal is to ensure that the patient continues to develop without the burden of anguish and negativity.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). This type of approach allows patients to understand that the world isn’t always what they want it to be. Thus, we must all accept uncertainty, contradiction, and injustice, without allowing suffering to nullify us. Instead, we must commit ourselves to setting a series of values and goals.

We should address existential depression, even if it isn’t in the manuals

In short, even though we don’t find existential depression in diagnostic manuals, there are effective treatments and strategies to mediate the well-being of those who suffer from it. Although it might be difficult for a patient to go see a doctor due to this, their feelings about the world around them will drive them to seek help.

  • Dabrowski, K. (1966). The Theory of Positive Disintegration. International Journal of Psychiatry, 2(2), 229-244.
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  • Marjorie Battaglia; Sal Mendaglio; Michael Piechowski (2013). Ann Robinson; Jennifer Jolly (eds.). Kazimierz Dabrowski – A Life of Positive Maladjustment (1902-1980)A Century of Contributions to Gifted Education: Illuminating Lives. London: Routledge. pp. 181–198.
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  • Skrzyniarz, Ryszard. “Lublin teachers, lecturers and masters of Kazimierz Dąbrowski: discovering the biography.” Polska Myśl Pedagogiczna 5.5 (2019).
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