Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/18/2021
Have you ever wondered about your life’s purpose? Or whether your life is moving in the right direction? These questions can often bring up significant emotions, including feelings of dread and uneasiness.
It’s normal to ponder about what you should do with your life, especially if you’re a young and ambitious person. However, when your thoughts have a negative impact on your quality of life, they may contribute to existential dread and depression.
Although existential dread isn’t a clinically recognized form of depression, it’s a well-known and serious issue that can have a real impact on your thoughts, feelings and life outlook.
Below, we’ve explained what existential depression is, as well as the symptoms that you might experience if you’re developing existential depression.
We’ve also explained what you can do to deal with the thoughts and behaviors that cause you to feel this way, from coping strategies to medical treatments and more.
Existential depression is an informal term that’s used to refer to depression symptoms that can develop as a result of an existential crisis.
During an existential crisis, you might start to wonder what your purpose in life might be, and if your life has any greater meaning. You may worry about if you're focusing on the right things in life, or if you’re making mistakes.
Sometimes, these existential questions pass quickly, allowing you to move on with your life. But in other cases, asking certain questions leads to feelings of guilt, despair and anxiety that might linger in your mind and affect your thoughts and behavior.
When these feelings cause you to develop the symptoms of depression, it’s often referred to as existential depression.
Existential depression can affect anyone, although experts think that it may be more common in gifted people.
Numerous historical figures are believed to have suffered from existential depression, including Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens.
It’s important to keep in mind that research on existential depression is very limited, meaning we don’t know as much about this form of depression as we do about major depressive disorder or other types of depression.
However, many mental health professionals recognize existential depression as a problem and have experience treating people with existential mental health issues.
Existential depression often develops following a personal existential crisis. It may be triggered by certain life events or personal setbacks, such as:
An illness, physical injury or other sudden change in your physical health
The death of a loved one, such as a parent, sibling, close friend or partner
A sudden change in your financial circumstances, such as job loss or a major expense
An unexpected change in your life trajectory, such as missing out on an opportunity
Other changes in life, such as your children growing up and leaving home
When these events happen, you may start to question what you’re doing with your life, as well as why you’re doing it. You might start to wonder about the meaning of life for you, or develop feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction about your current life path.
These thoughts and feelings can sometimes cause depression. If you feel depressed after an existential crisis, you may develop the following symptoms:
Persistent feelings of anxiety, sadness or emptiness
A sense of guilt, helplessness or that you’re worthless
Little or no pleasure, even from activities you normally enjoy
A pessimistic outlook and a general belief that life is hopeless
Fatigue and a general reduction in your levels of energy
Difficulty focusing on specific tasks or remembering information
Changes in your sleep patterns, such as insomnia or early-morning awakening
An inability to remain still and general feelings of restlessness
A reduced level of ability to make decisions
Slowed movements and/or speech
Changes in your appetite and body weight
Suicidal thoughts and/or behavior
To be diagnosed with depression, at least some of these symptoms need to affect you on an almost daily basis for a period of two weeks or longer.
When it comes to existential depression, you may find yourself questioning certain aspects of your life. You may feel regrets for choices you’ve made in the past, or ask yourself why you’re spending time on your current career or education.
In some cases, you might start to ruminate about one or several past decisions or experiences and spend your time thinking about what you could have done differently.
These thoughts, feelings and actions can act as fuel for depression and make your symptoms more severe.
Going through an existential crisis can be a challenging experience, especially when it causes you to develop depressive symptoms.
The good news is that existential depression can be treated with a combination of professional help, lifestyle changes and, if necessary, medication. Below, we’ve shared what you can do to manage your existential depression symptoms and improve your quality of life.
If you’re going through an existential crisis and have depression symptoms that have lasted for longer than two weeks, one of the best things that you can do is to reach out to a mental health professional for help.
You can do this by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, contacting a psychiatrist or psychologist in your city, or from home by connecting with a licensed psychiatry provider using our online psychiatry service.
If you’re diagnosed with depression, your mental health provider will likely recommend taking part in psychotherapy, or talk therapy.
Several forms of psychotherapy are used to treat depression, including interpersonal therapy (IPT), problem-solving therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Other forms of therapy, such as existential therapy, may also help you to make decisions and understand how you can achieve meaning in your life.
Your mental health provider might also prescribe an antidepressant (a type of medication that treats depression symptoms) to help you cope with your symptoms.
Since existential depression is often triggered by an issue in your life, making changes to your habits and lifestyle may help to reduce the severity of your symptoms.
Try making the following changes to overcome existential depression:
Connect with your friends and family. Sometimes, an existential crisis can develop when you withdraw from your loved ones. Spending time with friends and family may reduce the severity of your depression symptoms and help you reorientate yourself.
Try to stop ruminating about the past. It’s easy to overthink, especially when it comes to mistakes. Try not to dwell too much on your past — instead, focus on creating a better future.
Make a note of things for which you’re thankful. One way to change your thinking is to keep a journal of all the things for which you’re grateful in life. When something good or meaningful happens, write it down.Over time, writing down the things you’re grateful for may add meaning to your life and help you identify opportunities for improvement.
Try mindfulness meditation. Research shows that meditation can improve depression and anxiety. Try spending five to 15 minutes a day practicing mindfulness meditation to let go of your worries and bring yourself into the current moment.
Get out and exercise. Exercise can improve your feelings by stimulating the release of endorphins — natural mood-lifting chemicals. It can also distract you from thoughts and habits that worsen your existential depression.When you notice your depression symptoms developing, try going for a walk or working out. Even a quick exercise session can often lift your mood and improve your day.
Take practical steps to address your existential concerns. Sometimes, dealing with an existential crisis can help you to discover real opportunities to improve your quality of life and make progress as a person.Instead of dwelling on the past, try to turn your experience into a positive opportunity to make progress and find meaning.
Our full guide to self-help strategies for depression shares more habits, techniques and lifestyle changes that you can use to deal with depression symptoms.
Existential anxiety is a common issue, especially for ambitious, talented people. When it leads to depression, it’s important to identify the symptoms and seek professional help if they persist for two weeks or longer.
You can seek help for existential depression by connecting with a mental health provider locally or online using our mental health services and care.
Existential depression is manageable, and with the right combination of treatment and self care, it’s possible to come out the other end as a stronger, more effective version of yourself.
Looking for more information about dealing with depression? Our guide to the common signs of clinical depression goes into more detail about the symptoms you may have if you’re depressed, while our free mental health resources share actionable strategies that you can use to deal with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness.