• It’s normal to contemplate the state of the world and life itself; for some, though, these questions stir up intense emotions like distress and despair that last for months or sometimes years. 
  • While existential depression is not a formal diagnosis, it is sometimes used to describe these cases of depression that stem from existential crises. 
  • In addition to feeling overwhelmed by life’s most mystifying questions, those with existential depression often feel hopeless about their fate or the fate of the world.
  • Common triggers include traumatic experiences and devastating loss; in addition, gifted individuals or those with high intelligence are more prone to experience existential depression.
  • You can cope with existential depression by defining your personal mission statement, setting short- and long-term goals, practicing mindfulness, and talking with both loved ones and a therapist about your tough feelings.

Do you ever contemplate the world and your place in it? 

Maybe you’re out with your friends, bonding over a bottle of red wine and deep conversations about life. But the profound thoughts and talks stop flowing with the wine. You head home and forget about your unanswered life questions. 

Or, perhaps you’ve just watched a thought-provoking movie that stirs up those same questions. It leaves you feeling insecure and unsure — about who you are, who you’re meant to be, why the world can be so confusing or cruel, even. But by the time you’ve started a different movie (this time a comedy), the insecurity and uncertainty have passed. 

It’s common, normal even, to contemplate the state of the world and life itself. To wonder what the whole point is or to scrutinize your specific life purpose. As you can see above, though, these questions often pass as quickly as they’ve come. The thing is that for some, these questions are only the beginning — instead of dissipating, they stir up intense emotions like distress and despair that last for months or sometimes years. 

Cue descriptions of existentialism, existential depression, and existential crises. Now that we’ve set the scene, we’ll explain what each of these terms means and — most importantly — what to do if you’re suffering as a result of distress and despair related to your mere existence. 

Is Existentialism a Form of Depression?

Existentialism is not a form of depression. Instead, it’s a philosophical belief that views freedom, decision-making, and action as fundamentals of the human experience. It says that we’re each in charge of creating meaning and purpose in our life. However, if one isn’t able to find meaning and purpose, they might begin to feel depressed — which is often called existential depression. 

What Is Existential Depression? What Is an Existential Crisis?

While existential depression is not a diagnosable form of depression (instead, a mental health provider might diagnose major depressive disorder (MDD)), it is a term that’s used to describe certain cases of depression. Specifically, those seen in individuals who feel hopeless, anxious, and sometimes even fearful when they think about questions that pertain to their life trajectory or outcome. For example:

  • “What’s the point of living?”
  • “What will happen to me when I die?”
  • “Why is there so much pain and suffering?”
  • “Who am I meant to be?”

When someone poses, explores, and suffers as a result of these hard-hitting questions, they’re often described as having an existential crisis. As you can see, this existential questioning typically focuses on understanding death, one’s purpose, as well as life itself. 

Asking these types of questions at one point or another is largely normal and can lead to positive self-growth; however, for certain individuals, it becomes a point of fixation and can lead to distress and despair (i.e., existential depression).

What Is Existential Despair? Does It Differ from Existential Depression?

The terms “existential despair” and “existential depression” are often used interchangeably. Again, existential depression is not an official type of depression — instead, it’s used to describe the despair and hopelessness one might feel about life, suffering, and their personal existence. Therefore, one might use “existential despair” to describe the same experience. 

What Are Existential Symptoms?

In addition to feeling overwhelmed by life’s most mystifying questions, those with existential depression often feel hopeless about their fate or the fate of the world; helpless when it comes to finding fulfillment or meaning in life; and frustrated with their day-to-day, which feels pointless or mundane. 

They will also experience general depression symptoms, which include:

  • A depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Changes in appetite and unintentional weight gain or loss
  • Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in all or most normal activities
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicidal ideation

In the case of existential depression, these symptoms will often relate to the individual’s feelings about life or the world around them. For example, they lose interest in activities they used to enjoy because those activities now seem pointless. Or, they can’t sleep because of their racing thoughts about life, death, and all of the unknowns. 

What Triggers an Existential Crisis?

One can enter an existential crisis at any given moment. However, there are common triggers that might cause one to begin questioning their existence and life in general:

  • Trauma: Traumatic events — or incidents that cause physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm — can make one more susceptible to existential crises. Victims of trauma might direct their questions about life suffering at the universe, their God, or something else and begin to question the point of life itself. 
  • Grief and loss: Those who experience a difficult loss, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, might also have an existential crisis as a result. These individuals, too, often harbor anger and despair, and they might begin to seriously question life, death, and the state of the world. 
  • Another life-changing event: Trauma and tremendous loss are both hugely life-changing events. Other life-changing events can also trigger existential crises; for example, going through a divorce or being diagnosed with a chronic illness

The Correlation Between Gifted People and Existential Depression

Additionally, gifted individuals (or those with high intelligence) are more likely to experience existential depression. This group is more likely to think about the transient nature of life and seek answers to their questions, many of which aren’t obtainable. They are keenly aware of the shortcomings in the world and experience intense feelings as a result — that disappointment, despair, and hopelessness we’ve talked about. 

Existential depression in gifted individuals can be exacerbated by the lack of others’ concerns. They grow even more disappointed and hopeless when they share their thoughts and feelings with people who are focused on the more mundane aspects of life. Signs of existential depression in gifted individuals can show at an early age, affecting children as young as 6 or 7 years old. 

Existential depression in gifted individuals is also unique in that it can center around one’s limitations. For example, it simply isn’t possible (thanks to the confines of time) for gifted people to explore all of their interests and display all of their talents. Instead, they have to choose, which can lead to the same difficult emotions — especially when deciding on their career path. Weighing one’s interests, talents, and passions in order to comply with the limits of time is overwhelming and depressing. 

How to Cope with Existential Depression

If you feel hopeless and depressed about life or your purpose, try out the following — these tips are designed to refocus your attention and reinstill your passion for life:

  1. Create your own personal mission statement. Your mission statement will simply define who you are and how you intend to live your life. It summarizes your values in a couple of sentences and provides a framework for you to base your goals and actions on. To formulate your personal mission statement, consider the problems you care about, other interests, and your talents.
  2. Set short- and long-term goals. Goal-setting is important because it empowers you to work toward fulfilling your mission, which is a journey, not a destination. Therefore, these don’t have to be huge goals that take a lifetime to achieve. Instead, they can be smaller, short-term goals like volunteering at the animal shelter for the first time or saving X amount of money by the end of the month. That said, it’s good to have bigger, long-term goals too (especially if you’re feeling unmotivated or uncertain of your life purpose). For example, run your first marathon, earn your master’s degree, or learn a foreign language.
  3. Incorporate mindfulness into your day-to-day. If you’re experiencing existential depression or despair, you’re transfixed on the greater meaning of life or your own purpose. Shift your focus, instead, to what’s happening right now through mindfulness. Tap into the very second that is occurring at this moment. A quick and easy exercise for doing this is called the Five Senses Exercise. First, name five things you can see and describe them in detail. Then, do the same for four things you can hear. Followed by three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
  4. Talk it out. It’s always important and beneficial to get intense emotions out into the ether. Talk to a trusted friend or family member who you feel comfortable being vulnerable with. Let your thoughts, feelings, and concerns out. They might be able to provide a perspective that you haven’t considered.
  5. Meet with a therapist. If you’re experiencing true symptoms of depression (listed earlier), you need to talk to a mental health professional. They can offer a diagnosis and then create a treatment plan designed with your unique needs in mind. If you don’t think you have a diagnosable form of depression but are struggling with an existential crisis or existential despair, meeting with a therapist can still be helpful. They can provide a safe space for you to open up about and work through those difficult thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing.

Ultimately, if you’re struggling with existential depression or despair, you have to get more comfortable with not knowing — with not knowing the meaning of life, why we must suffer, or what your destiny is. Instead, focus on what’s in your control: your life mission, your goals (big and small), and this very moment.