Psychologists including James T. Webb and Eric Maisel note highly sensitive, creative and gifted, high ability people can be particularly vulnerable to existential depression.
Writer Peter Messerschmidt addresses this topic in his post Of Giftedness, ADD, Depression, and being an HSP, and writes,
“Existential Depression.. generally doesn’t affect many people, except in a very fleeting and vague manner.
“However, it is extremely prevalent among highly gifted sensitive adults. It’s pervasive, non-specific, numbing and immobolizing — in some cases causing the sufferer to reach a very logical conclusion that it makes most sense to just kill themselves.
“It does not respond to drugs or “conventional” therapies for depression; it cannot be “cured,” only “managed” … generally through Existential Psychotherapy..”
In his article Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals, James T. Webb, Ph.D. writes more about this experience.
“It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression.
“Although an episode of existential depression may be precipitated in anyone by a major loss or the threat of a loss which highlights the transient nature of life, persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to experience existential depression spontaneously.
“Sometimes this existential depression is tied into the positive disintegration experience referred to by Dabrowski (1996).
“Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or ‘ultimate concerns’) – death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.”
Book: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope by James T. Webb, PhD.
“Many bright idealists find themselves disillusioned in today’s world, and they may experience existential depression as they examine their lives and search for meaningfulness. This book will help such individuals to understand themselves and their struggles.
“It also includes helpful information and suggestions for actions that disillusioned idealists can use to better manage their feelings and thoughts in ways that will nurture their idealism and provide a sense of satisfaction and contentment.” [From http://www.greatpotentialpress.com]
Portrait above: Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) – author of The Sickness Unto Death and many other works.
One of his many stimulating quotes:
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” [From BrainyQuote collection.]
[“In the 19thC, Kierkegaard considered that angst and existential despair would appear when an inherited or borrowed world-view (often of a collective nature) proved unable to handle unexpected and extreme life-experiences. Nietzsche extended his views to suggest that the so-called Death of God – the loss of collective faith in religion and traditional morality – created a more widespread existential crisis for the philosophically aware.” From Wikipedia]
Dark moods and creative people
Writer Sharon Begley points out, “Abraham Lincoln was not hobbled by his dark moods bordering on depression, and Beethoven composed his later works in a melancholic funk. Vincent van Gogh, Emily Dickinson and other artistic geniuses saw the world through a glass darkly.
“The creator of ‘Peanuts,’ Charles M. Schulz, was known for his gloom, while Woody Allen plumbs existential melancholia for his films, and Patti Smith and Fiona Apple do so for their music.”
The crime of not living
Clive Hazell, PhD, author of The Experience of Emptiness, speaks of a related existential despair: our experience of emotional trauma and the feeling of remorse that the trauma contributed to a “life unlived” – a feeling of existential guilt: “I have committed the crime of not living, and I shall never live.”
Fear of empty space in art
The ArtLex Art Dictionary describes a principle of design: Horror vacui – “The compulsion to make marks in every space. Horror vacui is indicated by a crowded design. In Latin, it is literally, ‘fear of empty space’ or ‘fear of emptiness.’
Anxiety is the great silencer
Other experiences such as anxiety can be associated with depression and existential despair.
In my article Fear and creativity is a quote from creativity coach and therapist Eric Maisel , PhD: “… only a small percentage of creative people work as often or as deeply as, by all rights, they might be expected to work. What stops them? Anxiety or some face of anxiety like doubt, worry, or fear. Anxiety is the great silencer of the creative person.”
Creating is the antidote
In his article In Praise of Positive Obsessions, Dr. Maisel talks about an antidote: “Positive obsessions.. are the fruit of a creator’s efforts to make meaning. Without positive obsessions, life is dull, dreary, and meaningless.”
In his book “The Van Gogh Blues: A Creative Person’s Path Through Depression” Maisel notes, “Creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain meaning. In the act of creation, they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and sometimes produce work that helps others maintain meaning.”
From article Creating To Maintain Meaning.
Also read about his Meaning Solution Program.
Perhaps that is one of our best strategies to manage existential depression: to keep creating and thereby making meaning.
Introduced by Neseret Bemient, host of The Mental Health Telesummit, Maisel talks about “official” attitudes of many health professionals about some forms of human experience, such as depression, that get labeled as mental illness.
He thinks “There is something profoundly wrong with the way that we currently name and treat certain human phenomena.” [From article “Rethinking Creativity and Depression“]
In this brief audio clip he talks about ideas he also presents in his book “Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning”.
Get his full-length [almost an hour] interview as part of the Mental Health Telesummit package of recordings by 12 presenters.
Also read about his online course Why Smart People Hurt [at The Academy for Optimal Living]
Existential dread page – multiple quotes etc.