Existential Depression

The following is some pretty personal information…but then again, isn’t most of my blog? I’m hoping that someone will come across this post and send me on the path to more information.

I recently started researching existential depression.

Don’t know what it is?

Me neither.

Apparently, it’s not a diagnosis the field of psychology is well versed either. I read an article about existential depression, and it was as if I was reading about our oldest son’s lifetime struggles. I can’t find enough resources to help him. I know I can’t do anything but share the information I can glean, the rest is up to him. However, I need the information to share.

I know this is tugging at my mom-guilt, but imagine discovering 20 years into the future, that your kindergartner was struggling with questions about the meaning of life, what is humankind’s purpose, is this all there is?

Serious stuff for a 5-year-old, isn’t it?

I didn’t recognize that when he said he couldn’t relate well with his peers, these were the differences he was dealing with. As parents, our thoughts were that he was extremely intelligent, introverted, and the majority of his friends just wanted to play.

Not to say that our son didn’t want to play, but he had some thoughts that were far beyond his comprehension, and something his peers didn’t contemplate. Thinking that he was simply introverted was so far from the truth.

Lately, we have been having bits and pieces of conversation about religion and some of the questions he asks. The only response I could muster, is that we can’t know all the answers, which is why many turn to religion. I didn’t know it, but he has researched many religions, and not a one of them makes complete sense to him.

About four years ago he was suicidal, and thankfully sought the help of a therapist and psychologist. The therapist always told him he was being too vague, and insisted using cognitive behavior therapy with him. His psychiatrist suggested he needed psychotherapy, so he found a doctor that specialized in this area. She simply placated him, acted as if she didn’t really have the time, and her mannerisms were very stiff and controlled.

I like to think I’m an observer. My son exceeds simple observations, he is intuitive and questions everything. He sees the hokeyness in accepting or embracing the fact that we can’t know everything, this is what you should do….. you should follow these teachings…..

I feel as if I will never find satisfaction in anything I do.

Not the words of a hopeless depressed person feeling as if they are worthless. Those were the words my son used, which rocked me to my core. Please note—he didn’t use the word happiness, he used the word satisfaction. My interpretation is that he is thirsty but can’t get enough water to quench his thirst—and feels as if he never will.

This is a different form of the depression ogre.

I can almost relate to where he is coming from because I can remember a point in my adult life asking if this is all there is to life. Adult thinking that a lot of us will do at some point. Some like to call it a mid-life crisis.

This has been his entire life.

Think about that.


About April

I'll come back to this when I find out who I really am. I've been through some extremely rough patches but they have made me a better person. I blog if my brain is functioning first thing in the morning.
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54 Responses to Existential Depression

  1. I can relate somewhat to your son, as I had similar thoughts growing up. Even in my work, I’ve seen this kind of thought in particularly gifted children, mature beyond their years, who couldn’t relate to their peers. You’re welcome to email me if you want to discuss this further (check my about page for the address). In the meantime, you may find some answers at this website: psychcentral.com

    Take care!

  2. aviets says:

    April!!!! You’ve just described SO much of what our younger daughter has dealt with all her life. From age three to age 7 we spent at least three or four nights of every week awake with her all night long, as she shivered uncontrollably from contemplating subjects that the greatest adult thinkers in history have never been able to comprehend. She was thinking way too deeply for her age, and it came out in very difficult behaviors during the day. It eased up some as she got older, though it may actually be that she just learned to stuff it away and internalize it rather than keeping me and her father awake with it until the wee hours.

    Just recently I heard the term “existential angst,” which I think is closely related to the term you used, “existential depression.” Apparently it’s pretty common among extremely bright kids. She didn’t reach the point of needing treatment for depression and anxiety until recently (though now I wonder if she’d have been better off if we’d forced the issue and gone down that path some years ago). She’s found friends who deal with the same issues – and thankfully that has helped her rather than making the issue worse – my personal opinion is that wallowing in kind of angst is not helpful, but discovering that others have dealt with the same thing really does help her.

    You can shoot me an email if you want to discuss it…I have an idea what you might be going through as a parent on this one.

  3. Have you ever been in a relationship with a really shitty person but at first you don’t see that they’re shitty so you can go along under the delusion that you’re happy because all these chemicals in your brain mask your vision so to speak. Once those chemicals stop producing, or the shitty person does something so shitty it shatters your misperception that things are fine you can see clearly that they are terrible and that you’ve been unhappy but self medicated this whole time. That’s the analogy I’d use to describe this type of depression. Except that it applies to life and society. Whatever chemicals let everyone else live in the delusion that everything’s more or less ok and people are more good than bad aren’t running at full power, you see the really shitty situation our world is in very clearly. You understand that although there are many good people in the world there are more people who are selfish and lazy and greedy and they control our society. Your single voice has very little impact on the serious problems so many people face each day. It’s like trying to bail out a sinking ship with a teaspoon. That realization is overwhelming, it’s paralyzing, most people with such clear vision can’t handle it and turn to drugs, alcohol and self-destructive behavior to deal with it. Some are strong enough to hold on and kick start the production of just enough of those masking chemicals to function with a foot half in and half out of the delusional world most people live in. It’s a lonely place to be, hard to connect with others and a constant internal struggle. The thing is, life isn’t really that complicated but people have gone and created problems where there didn’t need to be any and now we have to deal with the repercussions, this existential depression is just one of them.

    • April says:

      oh my gosh…this is exactly what he said to me. Different words, same meaning. I don’t think he has met many–if anyone who understands this the way he does. Certainly the therapists he has been to don’t understand it.

      • It’s hard to fully grasp it unless you experience it, I’ve always wondered why people who aren’t good at empathy go into psychology. They do more harm than good sometimes.

        • April says:

          Do you have experience with this, or the empathy? 🙂

          • I’m empathetic and have met several therapists (on my journey to understand my own existential depression) who lack that trait including the guy who told my husband and I just to get a divorce on our second visit to marriage counseling. The ones who don’t understand what I’m going through are hard to respect or take seriously. There’s already defenses up when you go see a therapist so if they give you any reason to doubt them they probably won’t be able to help. I won’t put stock in the empty things said by distracted people and so I leave more frustrated than when I got there.

            • April says:

              The same thing happens to him. Well, he has only seen two therapists. The first one frustrated him because she insisted on spending weeks pestering him about one small thought. The second one called my husband (with my son’s approval) and told him to make sure all his hunting guns were locked. He thought it was silly because he was simply exhausted….which I knew when he left. Sounds like he needs to find someone to talk two who is on the same level as he is. He doesn’t fit into the average diagnosis, and I’m pretty sure he is more frustrated with life than he is depressed.

              • I can relate to that, being more frustrated than depressed it’s like that quote from the big bang theory…paraphrasing here “usually people cry because they’re sad but I cry because others are stupid and that makes me sad” except it’s more like most people are frustrated because they’re depressed but I’m depressed because I’m so frustrated with the world I live in. When people talk about what they’d wish for if a genie appeared and offered to grant them a wish my answer is always different from other people’s. I always say I want full access to my brain’s potential, essentially to have the abilities of the fictional character “Q” from STNG. I wouldn’t even use it to lord over others but to finally unlock all the unknown variables that make up our universe and existence in general, to explore and learn and understand the why of it all and to maybe believe that all the cruelty, suffering and evil is necessary in the balance of life when measured against the innovation and perseverance of humanity. I think if I could fully see the bigger picture I’d find some peace then, I could relax.

                • April says:

                  Do you have friends who also think this way?

                  He made me laugh when he was complaining about a lunch out with his co-workers. They spent 20 minutes discussing patio furniture.

                  I often wonder if this is all there is, and ask the type of questions you do, but since I can’t find an answer, I kind of block that type of thinking. I know it probably isn’t the same thing, but I can certainly empathize.

                • Sadly I don’t have any friends who think this way, I’ve had to tone down over the years to keep from alienating the ones who were really important to me. It’s part of why I’m in a constant struggle with husband, he doesn’t understand my nature and thinks I’m trying to make him feel small and stupid when I talk about the things that I think about in my head all day. I’m never trying to do anything but share my thoughts with him, unfortunately my assuring words go right through him. I get so excited if I meet someone willing to philosophize with me, or to discuss social plight, economics or scientific advances but usually they don’t live close and lead very busy lives. I’m mostly surrounded by people who like to stick to light topics that require little effort. I find myself gravitating to artists and musicians who I believe are dealing with the same questions and frustrations that I am though. It’s like finding a kindred spirit of sorts though often a one-sided relationship since they are unaware of my existence. Helps me know I’m not alone, however. I did get to meet one such musician several times over the past decade, Justin Pierre of the band Motion City Soundtrack, and it was nice to talk with him and thank him for sharing his inner turmoil with the world. I know I’m not the only person who’s benefited from his music. I always enjoy getting to visit with an artist named Ross Ford, I think if we lived closer to one another we’d collaborate quite a bit, we’re very similar but with vastly different talents. Ugh and here I go rambling on. I often distract myself to block out the thoughts that would otherwise consume my days and leave me unproductive, apathy is my coping method even if it isn’t the best way to deal with things.

                • April says:

                  You’ve opened my eyes to a lot. My son has been teaching me all this time. I admit that I listened but didn’t hear because I can’t understand the complexities of certain topics the way he does, or the senseless actions of humans. When I seriously try to comprehend what he is saying, I’m overwhelmed with the same questions. However, he inspires me to research the topic. In many ways, depression keeps me from thinking. My blogging is a way for me to release my personal frustrations in a corny way. I fill it with struggles and nonsense to avoid any confrontation from name calling idiots. I would bet that when you engage in a conversation, the person you are speaking with, who doesn’t understand, will resort to insults and/or name calling….or illogical responses. Because of this, you have learned to keep a lot of what you really want to say to yourself? I understand…now how do I find a way to help?

                • I have dealt with a lot of backlash from insecure people in my life, it taught me to assume positive intent when interacting with others, to take words literally instead of trying to make it about myself in some way (which many people do so they can find a way to be comfortable or to relate) so that I really hear what they’re saying to me which is usually just that they wanted to share their idea, thought or feelings with someone without hearing a long speal about how the person they’re telling this to feels about their idea, thought or feelings. You help your son by simply listening, accepting him and not taking things personally. Knowing someone loves us enough to let us ramble without trying to solve our problems for us is such a relief. Even when we know we’re not making sense to others, knowing they’ll still listen can be enough.

                • April says:

                  You can email me any time you wish…I will listen. 🙂

                • I’ll probably take you up on that offer.

                • April says:

                  I hope you do!

  4. Tracy says:

    I truly hope you find some answers out there for your son. There has to be others who have experienced it or know of someone who has. You are a brave and compassionate mother!!

    • April says:

      Thanks Tracy. He has always been open with me, but has trouble putting into words how he feels. Recently, I have learned to hear what he is saying instead of trying to “fix” him. I’ve always listened, I just wasn’t hearing because I couldn’t comprehend. Now I have a vague idea.

  5. While I’m not sure it’s ever really possible to fully understand what someone is going through, I will say that I can relate to your son and his feelings. Although, I think I suffer more from anxiety than depression. As a kid I remember talking to my mom about how I believed death was just like what you experienced before birth – nothingness. And it terrified me. While my friends played with dolls, I might be contemplating the vastness of the universe and how frightening infinity is. As an adult, I struggle with the meaning of life on a near daily basis. I feel like we are all part of a machine (trained as children to go to school, get a degree, get a job, have kids and pay your taxes) and there is this mass delusion that keeps us all in line, no one questioning the purpose of it all. We just watch football games and buy the latest gadgets without question, because that’s what the machine wants us to do.

    Once I decided not to have kids, the question of meaning really hit me hard. If I wasn’t going to have kids, what was I doing here? Clocking in and out of a job, taking a vacation here and there, complaining about washing dishes. And I began to question things like legacy and mortality. Will anyone remember me after I’m dead? Will I have made a difference? Then I think of all the nameless people who have lived before me and are now in oblivion and it actually makes me nauseous.

    I still lie in bed at night sometimes, these questions bouncing around my mind. I think I’ve been able to handle it because it mostly comes to me at night and over the years I’ve learned to quiet the thoughts after a few minutes. Although, there was a time where I could only sleep if I was exhausted or after drinking a few glasses of wine. I also think it’s why I’ve decided to write a novel. It gives me a sense of purpose and meaning other than the day to day activities of life. But will it last? I don’t know.

    I hope you and your son are able to find some answers and some relief from this.

    • April says:

      My son also has trouble sleeping, and your description of mass delusion is something he has said over and over. I kind of enjoy the conversations we have when I make a statement about something happening in the world, and I get a pfft from him. If he’s in the mood, he shares his thoughts on the subject, which I find fascinating. I just didn’t know this was so torturous for him. I wouldn’t say he was depressed, but makes some poor life choices and seems to lack enthusiasm for anything.

      I’ll keep on searching, but it seems to me that he simply needs to talk to others who have the same thoughts. I’m not sure he will received this from the psychiatric field.

  6. April I hope and pray you find answers. I can only imagine a tiny fraction of this and that fraction is over whelming at times.

  7. mewhoami says:

    I don’t know if I can completely relate to your son, but during much of my growing up years I had many thoughts about my existence. Why was I here? What was the point of it all? Why bother if this was all there was to life? Would there ever be a purpose to life, to my life? Those were the questions that I asked myself all the time. To be honest, I still wonder what my purpose is and hope one day to find it. For me, I was always in competition with myself. Nothing I did was ever good enough and never would be, because I wasn’t good enough. I think that’s what made me question my existence so much. I had to learn (and am still learning) that I am much more capable of doing things, of succeeding than I think I am. That gives me the motivation I need to keep on going and to convince myself that there is a point to life; a point to my life. So for your son, I don’t know…maybe he just needs to know that he’s capable of more than he thinks he is. A will to live comes from knowing that we are worthy of living.

    • April says:

      I don’t believe he thinks he is unworthy, just that life and all the motions we all go through make no sense to him. He does place his bar for achievement extremely high and never feels he reaches it.

  8. Cathy says:

    I often think think think about your posts. Sometimes I find similar things some just make think and so on. I have no idea about this type of depression nor advice. I am happy to be here and such but now just can’t wait til retirement. Your dear son. Very sad for him and you. I think listening is as important as anything. Good job!!!!!

  9. Hi. This is exactly what my older son went through, and still goes through. Existential depression is very common in gifted children (and adults, too). Our son started expressing concerns about man’s inhumanity to man at age 4. In grade 1, he felt that he could not be understood by his peers because they just wanted to play when he was thinking about the big world, it’s issues, and how inconsistent and hopeless the world sometimes seemed. At age 7, he was suicidal. He’s doing very well now, with ongoing psychotherapy. A great resource about existential depression in extremely bright individuals is available among the resources at SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted http://sengifted.org/ ). Something else that I noticed is that my son needed to work with an approach that was highly intellectual, but also helped him to connect to his emotions. That said, it helped to have a therapist who was aware of the issues of gifted individuals, extremely birth themselves, and willing to talk about the big ideas. I love CBT, but it doesn’t address the big issues that need to be explored in depth. I hope this is helpful.

  10. By the way, the therapist doesn’t need to be “birth”. They should be “bright.” 🙂

  11. Artemis says:

    That is awful that your son is going through that 😦 Especially so young! I deal with those existential/depression feelings quite often, and it’s pretty terrifying.

    This is the only post I’ve read by you (so far), and I don’t want to infringe on anything you may believe in; but I found that the most helpful thing for me was researching different spiritual paths, meditation, mindfulness meditation, etc.

    Even though he is five years old, I think that meditation could be a huge help for him. And even though he’s only five, maybe trying to explore the more meaningful parts of life and existence. When things were at their worst for me with dealing with these extreme existential thoughts and feelings, the biggest helps were trying to actually find some of those answers that were driving me crazy, as well as meditation and trying to be more mindful and present. Are you familiar with The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle? It’s a fantastic book, and a lot of the lessons in that book were very helpful to me, has has been a lot of Buddhist teachings.

    I wish you and your son the best of luck ❤ – Artemis

    • April says:

      Thank you! Yes, I’ve read The Power of Now, and I have talked to my son about Buddhist teachings. He said he has researched Buddhism and can see some of the ridiculous parts of that. He is actually 25 now, but has been dealing with this all his life. I never quite understood until I started hearing and not simply listening. We have also talked about being present in the moment, and meditation–not sure he is buying that, but I will keep encouraging him.

      • Artemis says:

        Oh wow, I’m only a year older than him.

        I think it’s wonderful how much you have tried to really understand what he’s going through -it’s not easy, and a lot of the people in my life and family are very confused by things I go through.

        I saw your comments about something to be passionate about. I think that’s great advice, as well as very important. Having something to strive for can make all the difference. I honestly don’t think I would be okay going through a lot of this if I didn’t have the book I’m writing, instruments to play, as well as lots of arts and crafts projects…

        And again, I wish you both the best of luck 🙂

        • April says:

          Thank you for the wishes. You know, he pours himself into music–all kinds, except Country. He also has an ability to understand various forms of language. I think I’m understanding….

  12. Glynis Jolly says:

    I’m pretty sure that this is going to sound like somethings canned but I can’t think of any other way to put it. What you’ve described sounds a lot like what my own son has gone through. It’s been very recently that he found an answer that he’s content with. Observing his during his life of 39 years, my take on what he was looking for was something to feel passionate about. Yes, it took his 39 years to find it.

    • April says:

      That’s the same discussion I had with my son the other day. I asked him if he could pinpoint something he is passionate about. I believe he is still thinking about it. I know that his job is filling the void at the moment, but his question is how long will it last?

  13. Off topic, April but I couldn’t let this weekend’s game go without comment. How ’bout those Seahawks?!?! 🙂

    • April says:

      oh my gosh! We were all on our feet at the end of the game. Russell Wilson is a wonderful example of believing in oneself. He sees it, he feels it, he trusts it. He never gives up and is humble. Of course, I have seen the Seahawks play and think of each other as part of a team, not one individual star. Go Hawks!

  14. reocochran says:

    I am glad that you have found a label for this, existential depression. I feel bad for your feeling responsible for understanding your son as a child. I truly believe children are not always our responsibility to “know what to do or say” but mainly you were there for him, April. You remember his words and his being able to express them to you speaks ‘volumes’ to me, as an onlooker and listener to this story. I wish there were magical potions to solve problems or ways to help our children. I had a child, my son, as a matter of fact, who could take apart toasters, navigate using a map, was extra-sensitive and really seemed like he would be a vet or doctor. The way he fixed things, being our ‘little man’ with my daughters and I. He has tried two times to commit suicide, he was in a mental ward of a hospital and the social worker told me he was gifted and so wonderful. I needed to hear he was this and more.
    He is now a parent of two little daughters and a step Dad for two older ones. He is amazing, braids the My Little Pony’s hair and paints with the kids. He is smart but decided to be a chef, this makes him happy. He is a ‘giving’ and loving person, which by preparing food he feels he is valuable. His school grades were great, just didn’t wish to go to college. Lastly, he has handled adult special needs people and also, was attacked twice and the police say I raised a good man, who didn’t raise his hand to defend nor attack back. He simply tried to talk to the confused druggie and the special needs man. Both times the hospital called the police, but Jamie would not press charges. He says, “It is not their fault. They couldn’t help themselves, Mom.”
    We have something in common, I guess I didn’t realize this about your son. He is very bright and sensitive. I can tell he is accomplishing much, he may just be “an old soul,” which is what my grandparents use to say about children who were ‘wise beyond their years.’ I hope your son finds his way, sometimes it is a daily challenge… as you know!

    • April says:

      I’m not sure he needs a label, but I have been doing preliminary research for him giving him a list of doctors that are on our insurance providers, and leave the rest to him. However, I wasn’t sure what type of help he needed because he couldn’t really describe how he was feeling to me. So…I read about gifted children and depression, and I swear I was reading about his life.

  15. Gallivanta says:

    My daughter finds her passion in poetry but it is a lonely passion. She is in a residential mental health programme at the moment. She has been to many therapists over the years; all have different suggestions most of which do not help. Lately, the therapists stock response to her questions seem to be, Have you tried mindfulness? My daughter does much in her head eye-rolling over that question. She responds politely but perhaps she should not. It’s hard, is all. We have no answers, only love.

    • April says:

      I believe the psychiatric field has come a long way, and I believe that mindfulness can help some, not all. Love is all we can give to support our kids. If I were your daughter, I would be blunt. Turn the question around and ask the doctor what they believe she will gain from it. My primary doctor makes me crazy. I have chronic lower back pain, and can feel the vertebrae shifting right before a major flare up. Her answer is to send me for physical therapy—no exray or any true diagnosis, just see the people who stretch me in ways I can’t stretch. eye roll

    • April says:

      I hope your daughter can find some answers that will be helpful to her.

  16. Pingback: Existential Depression | Harper Donohue

  17. There are so many assumptions about cognitive matters and in a few years a lot of that will be rectified and arcane presumptions deleted in diagnostics.

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