Existential Depression: A Perspective
Existential depression might be best described as a kind of depression that is not necessarily associated with the various kinds of clinical depression typical of mental health disorders. It is possible, though, that an individual can suffer from both clinical and existential depression. Treatment for clinical depression may or may not positively impact existential depression. Existential depression has its source in deep consideration of the nature of life and existence, which can be quite vast and intimidating in implication. In many ways, it might be considered a ‘spiritual crisis’ or ‘dark night of the soul’ that is either a once occurring event, or more often, an episodic and ongoing struggle throughout one’s life.
It is noted that those who commonly live with this kind of depression tend to be quite bright, altruistic, and are highly creative people—often frenetically so. Many begin to experience their existential disturbance at an early age, and it can escalate as the individual gets older, especially during the teen and young adult years. In some children, adults may be startled to hear the child asking questions about death, or stating concerns about either themselves or another close to them dying. In teens, the emo lifestyle may be more about existential depression than simply a fad way of dressing. Many famous people can be identified as likely to have had existential depression—from Van Gogh, Poe, and Lincoln to Jackson Pollock and Jim Morrison. As the reader will note from this brief list, those who suffer from existential depression are often somewhat tortured souls who may seek relief from the depression in quite negative ways, though not all do this, as Lincoln exemplifies.
The experience of existential depression is that the individual comes to profound points of pondering the nature of their own existence and the nature of the world and reality around them. This is something that they cannot simply 'stop doing', as these considerations repeatedly crowd into their consciousness. That they cannot stop doing this usually mystifies and frustrates those around them. There is an often startling and sudden (and reoccurring) awareness that the structures and organizations of life are just phantom and quite relative. This, in turn, serves to shake the individual’s sense of purpose, meaning, and selfhood in life. This is referred to as an ‘existential crisis’. Such things as death, the relativity of freedom, and contemplation of one’s own small and insignificant place in the cosmos are examples of things that weigh heavier for the existentially sensitive than for most people.
It was Freud who first termed the word ‘ego’ for the structure and containment of self-identity and personhood. People with this type of depressive experience are very sensitive people who are able to experience great and almost painful empathy with others; indeed with the entire world as a whole. They have the ability to see and compare the ideal world with how the world actually is, and feel this comparison acutely and constantly. People with existential sensibilities may appear to have a ‘big ego’ to others because they can be quite outspoken and intense in their presentation. In fact, many are humble and fragile and are uniquely able to step outside of themselves in order to place their passion—art or service to others—ahead of even their own health.
Those who have not experienced existential depression have a very difficult time understanding those who suffer from it. It is as if most of the people in the world are blind or indifferent to the realities that the existentially sensitive person sees. And this, of course, contributes to the isolation and loneliness that is felt. Others may steer clear of people who experience existential issues because they are frequently difficult to live with. Many are misdiagnosed as bipolar or ‘eccentric’ or ‘wild’. Though most people’s moods change about every twenty minutes, the existential depressive’s mood changes tend to be more marked and outward. People who live with and love these folks will make statements that the existential depressive ‘thinks differently’, ‘feels things more deeply’, or ‘are overly sensitive’. Others accuse them of being pessimists or stuck in thinking about morbid things and needing to ‘just get on with life’. It is not uncommon for those who suffer from existential depression to have a life-long feeling of being different, and are observable as being socially awkward in certain circumstances while being dramatically the center of attention in others.
The crisis or repeated struggle for the existentially sensitive person is to gain, regain, or sustain a sense of meaning in life. As mentioned, creativity and altruism, ranging from performing and visual arts to serving others in healing professions or public service, are often the sources of this meaning. And it is with great passion that these are pursued; the existentially depressed do not just engage in these activities like other people do—they need them in a manner that is quite puzzling to others. It becomes essential to the individual’s emotional and psychological balance that they find ways to manage their ongoing struggle to hold on to meaning. If they cannot do this, they often become self-destructive with addictions, become adrenaline junkies, or simply end their own lives either indirectly or directly.
Making solid plans and commitments to the future, as well and engaging in ongoing positive learning and efforts at gaining insight and solid, stable meaning are keys for existentially sensitive people to remain healthy. Avoiding isolation and working hard and consistently at ‘connecting’ with others in intimate ways seems to help ground the existentially depressed. Balancing their drive and passion for their favored activities with finding and developing a meaningful reality structure is also essential. Self-disciplined avoidance of thoughts and behaviors of nihilism become important tools at not just avoiding self-destruction, but in attaining a sense of purpose, meaning, serenity, and satisfaction in a life worth leading.