Existential Depression: When Life Loses Its Meaning

People with high intellectual capacity can develop a very particular type of depression. It arises when they feel that life is meaningless, that injustices are many, that we are finite, lonely beings without real freedom.
Existential depression: when life loses its meaning

Existential depression is a little-known but recurrent type of psychological condition. Among its characteristics is, for example, feeling that we do not live up to expectations, that life is meaningless or that the world is a strange place, a scenario full of injustices and infinite inequalities.

It is possible that this term sounds strange and even risky from a clinical point of view. It is true that it is not in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and also that we do not know anyone who has received this diagnosis. However, it should be noted that this is a common type of psychological condition and that a part of the population suffers from it.

history of existential depression

It was in 2012 that Dr. Robert 

There are people who navigate in other psychic universes; some of whom ask deeper questions and feel a kind of unusual pain.  Feeling anxiety about the future of the world or sadness at not finding the true meaning of life can create a very particular depression.

man getting into despair
Existential depression arises in people with high intellectual abilities.

Existential depression: definition, symptoms and causes

It is possible that this depressive typology refers us to authors such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. His philosophical current spoke of the principles of freedom and individual responsibility, human loneliness and that very classic concept that is existential anguish.

This last term refers to that fear of the future, of the weight of our decisions, of the vertigo of not becoming what is expected of us. Now what does all this have to do with existential depression?

In fact, a lot. One of the figures who most studied this psychological condition was Irvin David Yalom, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a psychotherapist. One of his most notable works is “Existential Psychotherapy” .

In it, he talks about the main characteristics that a person with this type of depression has. As we shall see, it is quite similar to those ideas that the most representative figures of existentialism in philosophy conveyed to us in their time.

What are the symptoms of existential depression?

All depression is a multidimensional and complex phenomenon. Each person experiences it differently and, in general, there is usually comorbidity with other disorders, such as anxiety. Well then, this type of reality has a series of very particular characteristics, which are as follows:

  • Lack of meaning: the person does not find meaning in their existence. She feels as if she is entering a void where nothing is transcendent, authentic, or mind-enriching.
  • Feeling of not being understood: it is the feeling of feeling strange in this world, in addition to being alone.
  • Not feeling fulfilled:  because society is limited, because there are no mechanisms that promote this creative, professional, human and civic growth.
  • Suffering due to social injustices:  with inequalities, with lack of freedom.
  • Digress often about death: there are thoughts about the transience of the human being. Suicidal ideas are also present in this type of psychological disorder.
  • Physical manifestations: such  as tiredness, insomnia, hypersomnia, changes in diet.

A common type of depression in people with high intellectual abilities

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

  • People can go through 5 stages of personal development.
  • However,  about 70% of the population does not go beyond the first three phases. It is a development in which the person ends up getting used to society’s guidelines, until, little by little, he finds his place and adapts.
  • On the other hand, 30% reach the peak of personal development and, far from gaining more wisdom or well-being, what this causes is having to go through a moment of existential crisis. These people do not feel integrated with what society expects of them.
  • This is what Dr. Dabrowski called  positive disintegration . In other words, those who reach this level are forced to reformulate themselves, to disintegrate in order to re-build themselves.
  • However, it  is common for these people to go through a moment of deep doubt, of anguish, of not finding meaning in anything that surrounds them.
  • This type of suffering is common in people with a high IQ.
woman with existential depression
Feeling that life is meaningless is one of the most recurrent ideas in people with existential depression.

Therapeutic Strategies

Can existential depression be treated? This type of condition, like any other type of mood disorder, is treatable.

In general, it is important to individualize the therapeutic strategy taking into account the needs of each person. Thus, there will be those who, in addition to psychological therapy, also benefit from a pharmacological response (antidepressants). Now, how to help a person with high intellectual abilities who suffers from depression?

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy is always a good strategy. It will allow us to guide these thoughts towards more positive approaches, to find a new meaning in life. The goal will be to set achievable goals and allow the person to get excited about the future.
  • Emotional management will work to reduce the impact of more adverse or complicated emotions. The goal is to ensure that the person continues to develop, but without the burden of anguish and negativity.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (TAC). This kind of approach allows us to understand that the world is often not what we want it to be. We must accept uncertainty, contradiction and injustice without this suffering invalidating us, but committing ourselves to defining a series of values ​​and goals to achieve them.

Address existential depression, even if it’s not in the textbooks

To conclude, although existential depression is not included in diagnostic manuals, there are effective treatments and strategies to mediate the well-being of people who suffer from it. It is difficult for a patient to go to the office with this approach, but his feelings about the world around him will cause him to seek help.

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