Confronting Existential Depression: How to Help Yourself and Your Loved Ones


Existential depression is a type of depression that arises when a person confronts issues of life such as existence itself, the meaning of life, as well as death. As a consequence of these continuous existential issues, it is common to lapse into depressive episodes. Existential depression can often result from a particular traumatic event in a person’s life, typically one associated with loss, however it is possible for it to occur without a specific triggering event. Although the symptoms of existential depression are difficult to deal with, there are many ways a person can overcome and treat them.  

What Causes Existential Depression?

Our natural human tendencies are at the root of our existential thoughts

We can understand existential depression by familiarizing ourselves with the more general philosophical concept of existentialism. It means that humans, by nature, strive to find meaning in life. By having the ability to make our own decisions throughout life, we are in turn responsible for the meaning we derive from the life we live. Although this may give us a way to self reflect and achieve our desires for purpose, these types of thoughts can also drive a person into depression. Existential depression tends to manifest as feelings of hopelessness or that life does not actually have meaning. Thoughts also tend to center around the inevitable concept of death and the purpose of life before death. As mentioned before, it is possible that the loss of a loved one, or even the loss of one’s job, can trigger episodes of existential depression. 

Who Experiences Existential Depression?

Gifted individuals may be more susceptible 

Experts believe that existential depression actually tends to be more common in gifted or talented individuals. However, it is possible for existential depression to affect any individual who may be particularly prone to depressive symptoms or anyone who has experienced a traumatic loss or existential crisis. It is thought that existential depression may occur more often in individuals of higher intellectual ability due to the nature of the depressive thoughts. Because thoughts related to existential depression tend to involve a lot of self reflection and analysis of life rather than more superficial observations, gifted individuals are thought to be more predisposed. 

Gifted children are especially at risk relative to their peers because of their ability to consider future possibilities or downfalls. Due to their tendencies to be idealists, it is common for gifted children to become more easily frustrated or upset if these expectations are not necessarily reached. More negative reflections on the self or on the surrounding world tend to drive these individuals into thoughts associated with episodes of existential depression.

How is Existential Depression Different From Normal Depression?

Thought content makes this type of depression unique

Many symptoms of existential depression are actually quite similar to the typical symptoms seen in clinical depression. A person experiencing existential depression might experience feelings of tiredness, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, as well as a general lack of interest in everyday activities. Those seeking treatment for clinical depression tend to experience these symptoms for at least a two week period.

It is important to note however that there are some symptomatic characteristics that are unique to existential depression. As previously mentioned, the depressive thoughts associated with existential depression tend to focus more specifically on a lack of meaning or purpose in life in addition to the concept of death. Certainly, these types of thoughts can lead to suicidal feelings, which can also occur in other types of depression. 

A woman appears to be having a crisis, which can be one major symptom of existential depression.
Many of the symptoms of existential depression are similar to the typical symptoms that come to mind when we think of depression. However, what makes existential depression unique is the fact that a person experiencing it tends to have thoughts centered around lacking a purpose or having a meaningless life.

Should I Seek Help For My Existential Depression?

There are many options to treat your symptoms

Existential depression treatment can take many forms. There are numerous ways a person experiencing existential depression can attempt to deal with their symptoms on their own, specifically in ways focused on addressing their thoughts. Some of these strategies include:

  • Journaling. Keeping a personal journal where you can write down some of your thoughts is a great strategy for dealing with your existential depression. Writing down thoughts helps you to address them and work through them from a different perspective.
  • Reframing your thoughts. Changing the way you perceive your thoughts isn’t always easy at first, but it can be extremely helpful in dealing with symptoms of existential depression. Seeing our thoughts in a different light or even modifying them to fit a more productive and healthy attitude is beneficial to our mental health. 
  • Talking to someone. Talking through your thoughts with a supportive friend or family member can provide a great strategy for confronting some of the thoughts associated with your existential depression. We’ve all probably found ourselves venting to someone we are close with about our various life conflicts. Using this same strategy to discuss some of the existential thoughts causing you distress can ultimately help you view them differently and possibly resolve them all together. 
  • Researching. Reading and researching is always a great way to learn about something. When it comes to the symptoms you’re experiencing with existential depression, simply learning more about why you feel this way can allow you to start finding ways to feel better. You might consider researching unique ways to treat your symptoms that fit your personality, or read about what types of strategies have worked for others and how they best adapted them to their personal lifestyles. 

However, in the event that you feel these individual strategies might not be effective in relieving your symptoms, seeking professional help is another great way to address your existential depression. There are licensed medical professionals, such as counselors or psychologists, that can provide clinical treatment. Psychotherapy, as opposed to prescription medications, is a common treatment route for those seeking help for existential depression. More specifically, existential therapy involves speaking with a therapist, but it is more problem-driven and allows the patient to focus specifically on their existential-related problems rather than all of the aspects of their life. Even still, it is possible that speaking with a therapist may not be enough to treat your existential depression. In this case, you may consider Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy. 

A woman is journaling, which is one strategy that can be used to cope with symptoms of existential depression.
There are many ways you can address your existential depression. Sometimes, strategies like journaling and confronting your existential questions are enough to treat your symptoms. In other cases, you may have to seek help from a licensed medical professional. 

What Is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy?

Why TMS may be the best treatment option for you

As previously mentioned, sometimes you’ve exhausted most treatment options but are still experiencing symptoms. If you are still struggling with your existential depression, TMS may be a more efficacious route of treatment. TMS is an FDA-approved, safe and non-invasive treatment that uses technology similar to MRI to stimulate the parts of your brain involved in regulating your mood. This technology helps your brain form new neural connections that ultimately relieve the depression symptoms you are experiencing. Throughout this type of therapy, you are awake and alert, with no surgery or sedation involved. Often, TMS therapy is combined with medication and other wellness techniques to most effectively treat your depression. Typically, a course of TMS therapy lasts several weeks. In some cases, just four weeks of TMS treatment can result in significant alleviation of depression symptoms. 

What Can I Do If Someone I Love is Experiencing Existential Depression? 

How to contribute to a support system

Sometimes we are confronted with the issue of a loved one experiencing a form of depression like existential depression and it isn’t always easy to know how exactly we can help. Though it may not be feasible for you to take the lead role in the treatment process for your loved one’s existential depression, there are still ways you can be supportive and helpful. First and foremost, you will want to do your best to be part of your loved one’s support network. Not everyone likes to open up to others, especially when it comes to their depression. However, providing a level of comfort and support to your loved one struggling with existential depression can be extremely helpful in the process of overcoming their symptoms. 

If appropriate, you can suggest that your loved one try some of the coping strategies mentioned previously in this article. One of these may involve you offering to listen to them if they need to vent or talk about their thoughts. Should your loved one not find any of these methods helpful, you can always discuss professional treatment with them to see if it is something they are willing to seek out. 

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