Life’s largest questions often have no answers. Still, it’s human nature to ask — and human nature to feel dissatisfied with uncertainty and unknowing.
At some point in life, you might begin to consider complex questions:
- “Why do people suffer?”
- “What happens after death?”
- “What’s the point of my life?”
- “What if I never find love?”
As you struggle to find meaning in pain, distress, and injustice, you might experience some apprehension, even fear. These feelings are commonly known as existential dread.
In time, you might come to terms with the general impossibility of finding the answers you want and recalibrate your self-concept to your new awareness of existence.
Yet existential angst can also leave you with a sense of despair for the world and your future.
Without answers, without any sure sense of meaning or control over your eventual fate, you might begin to feel hopeless, unmotivated, and unable to stop cycling through the same largely unanswerable questions.
Sound familiar? You may be grappling with existential depression.
Existential questioning generally centers on four main topics:
- death, including the awareness of its inevitability and what happens afterward
- freedom, or the sheer magnitude of choices (and consequences) available to you in life
- isolation, or disconnection from others and the eventual loss of important relationships
- meaninglessness, or wondering what point your life has
This exploration, and the distress that accompanies it, is often described as an existential crisis.
When you can’t answer these questions or accept life’s uncertainty, you might feel overwhelmed by the idea of living a life without purpose, deeper meaning, or connection.
This point of crisis often ends in positive growth, but it can also prompt feelings of despair. In fact, older research suggests existential concerns number among eight main reasons people list as a contributing factor for their depression.
Existential depression usually involves some of the following:
- a fixation on life’s deeper meaning or discovering your sense of purpose
- sadness and hopelessness related to the inability to answer existential questions
- hopelessness about the fate of society, or the world in general
- frequent thoughts of death, dying, or suicide
- fear of death
- a sense of futility or helplessness when it comes to creating meaning or change in your life
- the realization that the world is unjust or unfair
- wanting more from life than everyday routines that seem mundane and unimportant
- disconnection or detachment in your personal relationships, often because you believe they’ll eventually end, anyway
- loss of interest in the activities and hobbies you usually enjoy, often because these things seem pointless
- the belief that nothing you do will make a difference, so you wonder why you should bother at all
- difficulty interacting with people who seem unconcerned about existential concepts
- loss of motivation or difficulty making choices, often because you feel overwhelmed by the possibilities
Feeling trapped in a search for deeper meaning, unable to move forward from the point of crisis, can prompt what Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski described as a “disintegration” of the self.
You might end up fixating on past choices or mistakes and feel guilty for your inability to make a difference in the lives of others.
Existential depression can also result in your losing touch with personal values and life goals, and you might notice your sense of self begins to blur and lose definition.
This combined sense of guilt, helplessness, and detachment can lead to difficulties maintaining your relationships or doing things you once loved, which can contribute to feelings of isolation and meaninglessness.
Some researchers and psychologists have suggested existential depression shows up more commonly in gifted and talented people, including:
- artists and other creative individuals
- highly sensitive people
Keep in mind, though, that “more common” doesn’t necessarily mean “exclusive.” Anyone can experience depression, and you don’t have to be “gifted,” so to speak, to consider (or agonize over) the deeper meaning of life.
To date, not much research has focused on existential depression. Future research and inclusive controlled trials may offer more insight on how people experience and respond to existential crises, including related feelings of anxiety or depression.
Existing research does seem to suggest that gifted people, defined as those who have high IQs or have demonstrated specific talents or achievements, are more likely to experience existential depression without any specific trigger, such as loss or illness.
One possible explanation lies in the fact that many gifted people are highly sensitive and often more deeply attuned to the distress experienced by others. Consequently, they may have a harder time accepting what seems like pointless suffering.
People with high empathy may be more likely to devote deep consideration to the injustices of life — and more likely to feel overwhelmed by their inability to come to any conclusions.
Gifted children, in particular, may begin to confront existential questions when they first encounter death or begin to recognize pain and injustice in the world.
Children struggling to comprehend racism, violence, homelessness, inequality, climate change, and other manifestations of the harm people do to others may feel overwhelmed and distressed by the first inklings of their own powerlessness.
Digging into existential questions might help you learn to live with your uncertainties, but this process tends to involve getting comfortable with a lack of resolution — something most people find pretty difficult.
These strategies can help you stop a downward spiral and move toward acceptance.
Create your own meaning
Your actions and choices shape how your life plays out. Of course, you can’t control everything that happens, but you can make changes — large or small — that help you live more purposefully.
- If you fear losing loved ones, make sure they know just how much they mean to you and enjoy the time you have together to the fullest.
- If you believe you haven’t contributed much to the world, share what resources you do have: time, energy, kindness, compassion. Even actions that seem tiny or insignificant to you, like running an errand for a neighbor, volunteering in your community, or listening to a friend’s struggles, can have a huge impact for others.
- If you struggle to find meaning in your life, spend some time exploring your personal values — creativity, honesty, gratitude, empathy, curiosity, and so on. In what ways do your choices already align with them? Can you identify any actions that might help reaffirm those values and create a new sense of purpose?
Share your feelings
Talking to trusted loved ones about emotional distress can usually have benefit, no matter the source of that distress.
Close friends and family who’ve spent time questioning similar concepts for themselves may have some words of comfort and insight to offer.
While you might not realize exactly how you add meaning to the lives of others, the people who care for you certainly do. Recognizing the part you play in their lives can often help add a sense of purpose to your own life.
Even loved ones who don’t spend much time thinking about life’s bigger questions can still validate your feelings and offer emotional support, helping renew feelings of connection and easing some of your pain and despair.
No one to talk to? A therapist can also offer support (more on this later).
Transform uncertainty into growth
These symptoms don’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with you. Rather, they suggest a process of growth and evolution into your ideal self.
Along this line of thinking, existential depression can eventually lead to what Dabrowski termed reintegration. This involves a new level of deeper understanding, self-awareness, and self-acceptance.
The path to reintegration generally involves reconciling yourself to existential questions and distress and learning to manage these feelings through choices that add meaning to your life, such as living out personal values.
Stay in the present
When you focus your awareness on the present, it often becomes easier to recognize the joy, the value, and the meaning in your life. At the very least, it may help you shift your attention away from negative thoughts.
Maybe you have sadness, pain, or mistakes in your past, and nothing but uncertainty about the future. Those variables can absolutely cause distress, and they’re valid parts of your experience. All the same, the past has already happened, and the future has yet to be shaped.
You don’t have to avoid these thoughts entirely (and that may not actually help). But choosing to acknowledge them and then let them go allows you to concentrate on what you do have some control over: the here and now.
Mediation and mindful journaling are both great ways to increase present-moment awareness.
Depression won’t always improve without professional support.
Existential worries and despair can eventually:
- contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness
- affect personal relationships and day-to-day life
- lead to hopelessness or thoughts of suicide
If feelings of depression last longer than a few weeks, reaching out for support is a good next step.
Most therapists can help you begin to manage feelings of depression, but existential and humanistic therapies may be particularly helpful for this kind of depression.
Both offer a safe, nonjudgmental space to consider the deep, challenging questions of life and explore ways to find more meaningful fulfillment.
- In existential therapy, you’ll consider those four main existential topics mentioned above — death, freedom, isolation, meaninglessness — more carefully and learn to accept and integrate them into your sense of self.
- In humanistic therapy, you’ll learn why it’s so important to be who you truly are. Learning to accept and respect your true self can help you find a path that best suits your unique perspective and potential.
No one can predict the future or resolve all of humanity’s difficulties, and existential questions can weigh heavily, once asked.
You may not arrive at any satisfying conclusions, even after weeks, months, or years of exploration, and this lack of answers might leave you fixating on these mysteries and doubts. Life wouldn’t be quite the same, though, without the anticipation and excitement of possibilities waiting ahead.
Much of life is an unknown, but know this: Your life already has meaning, even if your journey to discover that meaning has yet to unfold.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.