“What’s the meaning of human existence?” you wonder. “What’s my life’s purpose? What’s the whole point?” And then, a feeling of uneasiness and despair takes over you.
Is this what they call an existential crisis? Or is it, perhaps, existential depression?
Existential depression is not a formal diagnosis. Of course, this doesn’t mean it might not be real to you.
What we mean is that it’s not included as a condition or a specifier in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), the reference handbook many mental health professionals use to make diagnoses.
Existential depression has, however, been written about, researched, and often seen in clinical settings by many mental health professionals.
In fact, Deborah Serani, PsyD, says some of her own patients have experienced existential depression.
Serani explains that, while depression symptoms are categorically outlined for diagnostic purposes, these may however vary according to subtype.
Indeed, there are many types of depressive disorders, including:
- clinical depression
- seasonal affective disorder
- persistent depressive disorder
Is existential depression one of them?
Not formally, but symptoms associated with it fall into symptoms of some depressive disorders.
“Existential depression is a very real and powerful experience,” Serani, a psychologist and award-winning author of “Depression in Later Life,” told Psych Central.
When you persistently contemplate freedom, death, or life, and these issues bring on specific depressive symptoms, you might be facing existential depression.
In other words, you may experience symptoms of depression, and they might be called existential because of the thoughts that may have triggered them.
For some researchers, existential crises deal with cognitive components, such as the loss of purpose or meaning in life.
But not all existential crises lead to a depressive disorder, explains Serani. So existential depression and existential crisis are two different occurrences.
Depression is a mental health condition, a mood disorder. It can be diagnosed and treated.
A crisis is a psychological or moral life event that might lead to higher — sometimes intolerable — stress levels. It can also be worked through with the help of a mental health professional, but it’s not necessarily attached to a condition.
Can an existential crisis lead to depression? It’s possible, but that’s not always the case.
In fact, it could be quite the opposite.
“A challenging moment may lead a person to a deeply reflective time life review, thoughts about death or spirituality, about identity and purpose, but the end result may lead to empowerment, consciousness, and affirmation,” said Serani.
When this is not the case, an existential crisis could lead to symptoms of anxiety, helplessness, anger, and depression.
“The issue here is to allow the thoughts and the emotions to unfold, and to be mindful of what you are feeling,” said Serani.
In sum, if you experience persistent existential thoughts that might make you feel frustrated and stressed, at times, you might be going through an existential crisis.
If these thoughts persist for more than 2 weeks and they affect the way you see yourself, others, and how you function in the world, you might have developed a depressive disorder.
What causes an existential crisis?
Although an existential crisis is generally thought of as occurring later in life, Serani says it can happen at different ages and have different levels of intensity.
“Psychologist Erik Erikson first called this experience an identity crisis in 1970 — when a person is trying to resolve or find the answer to a challenging question,” she said.
Questions that may lead to an existential crisis include:
- Who am I?
- What is life about?
- What can I contribute to the world?
- What will my future hold?
- Does God exist?
- Does anyone care about me?
Not all existential crises are the same, though. Serani explains that there are three main versions:
Sophomore crisis (ages 15–20 years)
This is when adolescents reflect on their identity.
“Usually, they struggle with worrying about their future, career paths, relationships, and life in general,” said Serani.
Adult existential crisis (ages 20–30 years)
If adolescents can’t negotiate their struggles with identity, young adults can develop an existential crisis.
“They may experience further challenges by feeling pressure about their life choices or lack thereof,” Serani explained.
Later existential crisis (ages 50 years and older)
When older adults start to worry about illness, physical pain, mortality, and fear of impending death, a crisis might be in sight.
“Spirituality, religion, and loss and remembrance also add to the textures of this reflective time,” said Serani.
Yes. When you call it depression, you refer to specific symptoms that a mental health professional can include in a diagnosis.
These depression symptoms may affect your ability to function on a daily basis, including the way you see yourself and others.
If you experience these symptoms for 2 weeks or more, a mental health professional may reach a depression diagnosis.
While there are different types of depression, and not everyone experiences the same symptoms or with the same intensity, the most common ones include:
- persistently feeling sad, anxious, or “empty”
- feeling hopeless or pessimistic
- feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- feeling tired all the time
- moving or talking at a slower pace
- finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions
- sleep disturbances
- changing in eating habits and body weight
- suicidal thoughts
- inability to comfort body aches, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems
Symptoms of existential depression may include any of the above.
However, Serani says that, in her experience, patients dealing with existential depression may show specific thought patterns.
“While there may be overlapping symptoms like tearfulness, sadness, hopelessness, fatigue, and negative thinking, existential depression will likely focus on identity, life, and death questions,” she said.
Going through a significant loss may lead to existential questions.
When you mourn or go through a grieving process, it’s natural to question some things in your life.
This questioning about life as you know it and the changes that await you, might lead to an existential crisis or even symptoms of depression, in some cases.
In this sense, existential depression could be a part of the depression stage of grief. In these instances, the symptoms might disappear once you move to other stages or process your loss.
If symptoms persist beyond 2 weeks, it might mean you have developed clinical depression.
In general, as a type of depression, it may share many of the general causes and factors of the condition.
Specifically, existential depression could also have specific triggers.
Serani says life stressors can be one of the main causes of existential depression.
“Graduation, college, career, marriage, illness, loss, divorce, death, and raising a family are ripe for generating big questions to fill our soul. So, too, can disasters, traumas, and now, the pandemic,” she explained.
Anyone can experience an existential crisis or a depressive episode.
However, some experts believe that “intense” people or those who are gifted are more likely to experience these.
In fact, a few historical names have been reported as experiencing existential depression at some point in their lives.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Ernest Hemingway
- William Faulkner
- Charles Dickens
- Tennessee Williams
- Virginia Woolf
- Emily Dickinson
- Eleanor Roosevelt
This tendency might be linked to the constant search for universal rules or answers or exploring and combating social injustices.
Serani notes that by nature, all humans are curious beings.
It’s natural to think that those who are more curious might come up with more questions and more often.
“Children and adults who are deep thinkers, deep feelers, or curious about creating meaning in their life will likely be prone to finding themselves in the crosshairs of existential questions,” she said.
Gifted individuals, as young as those in first grade, might also struggle with existential questions and concerns such as:
- traditions that seem meaningless or unfair to them
- why there are inflexible sex or age-role restrictions on people
- why people engage in inconsistent behaviors, saying one thing but doing another
- why people are careless in their dealings with others
- why some people don’t care about the planet
While gifted children and adults may think deeply about things of this nature, they might also recognize they’re not able to change or fix everything they perceive as existential problems.
This sense of frustration can sometimes lead to symptoms of existential depression.
The theory proposes that some symptoms of mental health conditions, such as neurosis, depression, and anxiety, are indicators of significant self-growth work.
In other words, these symptoms might come from a person’s efforts to reach their “best self” or most altruistic self.
According to this theory, the root questions that lead to existential depression might not be negative per se.
Instead, they might be part of a necessary process that could lead you to grow and become the best version of yourself.
Depression treatment is usually a combination of medications and psychotherapy.
Antidepressant medications work by improving the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress.
Psychotherapies that treat depression include:
Serani also explains that humanistic forms of therapy are usually effective in cases of depression or existential crises.
Examples of this type of therapy are:
- narrative therapy
- life-review therapy
- transpersonal therapy
- client-centered therapy
Humanistic therapies emphasize the importance of being true to yourself in order to live your most fulfilled life.
Existential therapy, part of the humanist approach, could help treat existential depression by providing you with specific directions, goals, and tools to work with.
Rather than treating a symptom, such as anxiety, existential therapy is based on the notion that the therapist looks at you with a holistic view.
Renowned existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom identifies four key issues around existentialism:
- freedom or a responsibility to make the best choices
Existential therapy aims to help you work through these specific crises.
When existential depression is related to the process of aging, Serani notes other approaches might be helpful.
The mindful practice of conscious aging, which is an offshoot of a 1987 model called
“It’s a mindful way to learn how to accept aging and change, as well as to become self-aware of life and its meaning. Workshops are available online, and there are many books on the subject,” explained Serani.
In cases when medication or therapy do not help with depression symptoms, a mental health professional may suggest brain stimulation therapies, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Self-care is an important approach in every case.
This means you could identify activities and exercises that work best for you. Some of these might include:
- exercising often
- setting short- and long-term goals that you can measure
- surrounding yourself with people you trust and sharing your feelings with them
- accepting and requesting help from others
- understanding that your mood may take time to improve but it is manageable
- educating yourself about depression symptoms and treatment options
Is existential depression real? It depends on who you ask.
It might not be a formal diagnosis in medical manuals, but the symptoms you experience are nonetheless real and valid.
Both existential crisis and depression can be managed and treated with a combination of professional help and self-care strategies.
You might find the following resources a good place to start: