Coping with Existential Depression
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
People and professionals often divide up depression into different types, such as “clinical” depression versus “non-clinical” depression, “biological” depression versus “situational” depression. The diagnostic manual professionals refer to, however, doesn’t make any distinctions about theorizing where or how your depression is caused, and neither does most research in this area. And yet, I believe such distinctions may serve a purpose if they help guide a person’s treatment choices.
So the other week I was heartened to read Liz Spikol’s entry about dealing with life events, work issues, and existential depression. Existential depression may be the result of a person’s attempt to deal with the realization that we are the masters of our own destiny and meaning in our own lives. To live a life of meaning, of purpose, of authenticity:
Personally, I’m beginning to wonder about some choices I’ve made. I can’t get into it all now, but I’m on the cusp of a big birthday, and it’s causing me to rethink who I am and what I should be doing in my personal life. Who do I want to be in the next decade? I lost 10 long years to my illness — I don’t even remember most of my twenties — and I feel like I’ve got to make every second count now. I want to live an authentic life, to be my true self. Who that person is, well, that’s the puzzle. It’s enough to send me back to bed.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Living a life of meaning and purpose is challenging — it challenges us to rethink every decision we ever made, and examine how we arrived at where we are today in our lives. More importantly, it challenges us to decide whether or not to make sometimes significant changes in our lives, to obtain the meaning in our lives that we seek.
When asked if there’s some drug that can help her with her existential depression, her doctor wisely replied, “No.” Depression brought about examining the meaning of our lives is best “treated” through introspection and psychotherapy with a professional who understands that sometimes the journey is the treatment.
WHAT THE HECK IS EXISTENTIAL DEPRESSION
ONE PERSON'S DESCRIPTION OF EXISTENTIAL DEPRESSION
"Though I've suffered setbacks, I'm fortunate to have a warm home and loving family (parents), and I have no physical or "tangible" problems I can point to as a cause. I appreciate what I have. However, I can't shake the overbearing dread that the world seems so fundamentally primitive, unjust, absurd, and meaningless.
Simple features of daily life can trigger difficult crying spells for me: whether watching a blind person crossing the street, or passing a homeless person in the cold, or a sick animal, or an act of injustice. Or, I'm either angry and hopelessly-numb because I feel like little more than a monkey in some unknown accidental terrarium. I worry that if God exists, yet allows so much senselessness and ignorance without some better explanation, perhaps I can't rely on Him, either. Most of all, I feel like I'm stuck in a prison world with a lifetime of responsibilities to satisfy, and I become physically claustrophobic in the world, unable to crawl out of my monkey-skin or flip an "off" switch to a world that often seems like an absurd prank.
I am not a "hippy," nor am I a "whiner," nor do I think that despite the new-agey-ness of Existential Depression, the pain is any less. I've wanted to kill myself just as dead as anyone suffering other mental illnesses; I'm just as unhappy and prone to tears as someone far less fortunate in a third-world country. My experience feels absolutely valid.
To date, I've been on an encyclopedia's worth of meds, and I've tried everything from practical and strategic therapy to transcendental meditation. I've sought remedy in the full range from hard science to radically philosophical, but NOTHING HELPS. The worst part is that any improvements to my career, life, girlfriends, homes, or positive developments in my future—seemingly none can have effect on fundamental problems I have with the world itself.
Other traits make this depression unbearable. When great intelligence seems to be at the heart of your problems, you feel completely alone; it seems that despite kind efforts, no one can help me. And just like the man who spots the gremlin on the plane wing which no one else can see (in the classic "Twilight Zone" episode), I feel like I'm seeing a nightmarish reality no one else gets. This makes me feel crazy! And the weight of the seeming responsibility to heal yourself—when it seems no one else can—makes the struggle and the sadness far worse. Humanity has struggled with existential questions for centuries; you feel it's unlikely that you can expect to solve things yourself in any satisfactory way.
Perhaps this depression "qualifies me" to become a great artist or something, but personal happiness seems mutually exclusive.
Football, friends and beer, working my way up a career, fixing up the house, or taking the kids to Disneyland—none of what others enjoy seems AT ALL satisfactory and indeed ridiculous, and only reinforces my loneliness or envy for people who are content with seemingly primitive and simple pleasures.
What can I do to stop feeling so sad, stop crying all the time, and accept my life without forfeiting a rebellious passion that seems so incredibly authentic? Thank you for any thoughts or advice."
"All men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.” Aristotle
It's very hard to keep your spirits up. You've got to keep selling yourself a bill of goods, and some people are better at lying to themselves than others. If you face reality too much, it kills you.---Woody Allen
Most of life is tragic. You're born, you don't know why. You're here, you don't know why. You go, you die. Your family dies. Your friends die. People suffer. People live in constant terror. The world is full of poverty and corruption and war and Nazis and tsunamis. The net result, the final count is, you lose - you don't beat the house.---Woody Allen