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Existential depression in gifted individuals

Social and Emotional Resources
This article by James Webb discusses existential depression among gifted young people. He examines what it is, how it may manifest in a gifted child, and what a parent can do to help their child through these difficult feelings. He points out that gifted young people are more likely to have this type of depression because of their more highly developed sensitivities.

Author: Webb, J.
Publisher: Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG)

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. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?

Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life. Other more specific characteristics of gifted children are important predisposers as well.

Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. Traditions are questioned or challenged. For example, why do we put such tight sex-role or age-role restrictions on people? Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing and then do another? Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others? How much difference in the world can one person’s life make?

When gifted children try to share these concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. They discover that others, particularly of their age, clearly do not share these concerns, but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others’ expectations. Often by even first grade, these youngsters, particularly the more highly gifted ones, feel isolated from their peers and perhaps from their families as they find that others are not prepared to discuss such weighty concerns.

When their intensity is combined with multi-potentiality, these youngsters become particularly frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to develop all of the talents that many of these children have. Making choices among the possibilities is indeed arbitrary; there is no “ultimately right” choice. Even choosing a vocation can be difficult if one is trying to make a career decision between essentially equal passion, talents and potential in violin, neurology, theoretical mathematics and international relations.

The reaction of gifted youngsters (again with intensity) to these frustrations is often one of anger. But they quickly discover that their anger is futile, for it is really directed at “fate” or at other matters which they are not able to control. Anger that is powerless evolves quickly into depression.

In such depression, gifted children typically try to find some sense of meaning, some anchor point which they can grasp to pull themselves out of the mire of “unfairness.” Often, though, the more they try to pull themselves out, the more they become acutely aware that their life is finite and brief, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a quite large world, and that there is a frightening freedom regarding how one chooses to live one’s life. It is at this point that they question life’s meaning and ask, “Is this all there is to life? Is there not ultimate meaning? Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? I am a small, insignificant organism who is alone in an absurd, arbitrary and capricious world where my life can have little impact, and then I die. Is this all there is?”

Such concerns are not too surprising in thoughtful adults who are going through mid-life crises. However, it is a matter of great concern when these existential questions are foremost in the mind of a twelve or fifteen year old. Such existential depressions deserve careful attention, since they can be precursors to suicide.

How can we help our bright youngsters cope with these questions? We cannot do much about the finiteness of our existence. However, we can help youngsters learn to feel that they are understood and not so alone and that there are ways to manage their freedom and their sense of isolation.

The isolation is helped to a degree by simply communicating to the youngster that someone else understands the issues that he/she is grappling with. Even though your experience is not exactly the same as mine, I feel far less alone if I know that you have had experiences that are reasonably similar. This is why relationships are so extremely important in the long-term adjustment of gifted children (Webb, Meckstroth and Tolan, 1982).

A particular way of breaking through the sense of isolation is through touch. In the same way that infants need to be held and touched, so do persons who are experiencing existential aloneness. Touch seems to be a fundamental and instinctual aspect of existence, as evidenced by mother-infant bonding or “failure to thrive” syndrome. Often, I have “prescribed” daily hugs for a youngster suffering existential depression and have advised parents of reluctant teenagers to say, “I know that you may not want a hug, but I need a hug.” A hug, a touch on the arm, playful jostling, or even a “high five” can be very important to such a youngster, because it establishes at least some physical connection.

The issues and choices involved in managing one’s freedom are more intellectual, as opposed to the reassuring aspects of touch as a sensory solution to an emotional crisis. Gifted children who feel overwhelmed by the myriad choices of an unstructured world can find a great deal of comfort in studying and exploring alternate ways in which other people have structured their lives. Through reading about people who have chosen specific paths to greatness and fulfillment, these youngsters can begin to use bibliotherapy as a method of understanding that choices are merely forks in the road of life, each of which can lead them to their own sense of fulfillment and accomplishment (Halsted, 1994). We all need to build our own personal philosophy of beliefs and values which will form meaningful frameworks for our lives.

It is such existential issues that lead many of our gifted individuals to bury themselves so intensively in “causes” (whether these causes are academics, political or social causes, or cults). Unfortunately, these existential issues can also prompt periods of depression, often mixed with desperate, thrashing attempts to “belong.” Helping these individuals to recognize the basic existential issues may help, but only if done in a kind and accepting way. In addition, these youngsters will need to understand that existential issues are not ones that can be dealt with only once, but rather ones that will need frequent revisiting and reconsideration.

In essence, then, we can help many persons with existential depressions if we can get them to realize that they are not so alone and if we can encourage them to adopt the message of hope written by the African-American poet, Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams.
For if dreams go,
Life is a barren field
Covered with snow.

Langston Hughes

References

Dabrowski, K. (1966). The Theory of Positive Disintegration. International Journal of Psychiatry, 2(2), 229-244.

Halsted, J. (1994). Some of My Best Friends Are Books: Guiding Gifted Readers from Pre-School through High School. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press, Inc. (Formerly Ohio Psychology Press).

Webb, J. T., Meckstroth, E. A. and Tolan, S. S. (1982). Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press, Inc. (formerly Ohio Psychology Press).

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

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Comments

Eva Perak

I had my first crisis when I was 4/5 where I cried every night because I knew everyone would die someday (including my loved ones). Soon after, my little sister got cancer and I became focused on more materialistic things. I continued to have these crisis’s throughout the ages 11-13, and I still continue to have them at the young age of 13. Your article describes my coping mechanisms of trying to fit in perfectly. I am either focused on the littlest things or zoomed out way to much causing me to sob over the lack of purpose in my life. I really need someone to help me understand why I have these emotions when no one else does.

haadyah

I'm almost 15 and this article perfectly describes me. It's honestly scary how accurate this is.
Going through an existential crisis is honestly making me depressed. These days, whenever I do a certain activity, I think to myself - "Why am I doing it? It doesn't matter in the end." I often find myself pondering about the meaning of life and what happens after. Is it pointless? Is it actually meaningful or have we just put meaning to it? What is the point of doing it all if one day we cease to exist, in a state of eternal nothingness? I don't know how to cope with these intrusive thoughts. I could be doing anything unrelated and suddenly, the thought of existentialism pops up in my mind.

Gina

I hope you're doing better.

People have all sorts of intrusive thoughts going through their minds, we just need to be able to be mindful of them when they chance to occur. The more you think about it, the more you're imprinting these thoughts into your mind and it may develop into a bad habit rewired into your brain. Exercising more positive thoughts will definitely make your well-being much happier.

I'm 15 as well, and the topic of existentialism was something I discovered through literature and the internet instead of something felt for myself. I think it would benefit you greatly to get into bibliotherapy, or maybe read something that will enrich your knowledge on these delicate topics, that is to say, philosophy.

If we are as worthless and as puny compared to the grandiosity and infinity of the universe as we think we are, all the more reason to believe that we should be present and consumed in this life that was given to us. If life is so empty and meaningless, then all the more reason to fill your life with great experiences. If life is worthless, then go live your life however you want. Because you're here, now, and and because there may be nothing to do on the other side, or because existence, even as harrowing or idle as it may be, is better than being nothing at all. And: why not? Why not live, if life is, as you say, so pointless anyway? Why should you concern yourself of something so far away from you when you are here and now, by pure coincidence and miracle in equal measure, and there is nothing to be expected of you and your existence other than to live in whatever way that satisfies you?

Ajay

Same here bro..

vatsalay khobragade

I am 21 years old male and I am doing quite good in my career but from time to time I suffer from existential crysis. I feel like what's the point of all these at the end of the day ? What is important at the end ? Am I doing right things or not ? Will I regret ? All these questions arrives in my mind and then It just demotivates me to do things that I really love Bc what's the point ?

Lindsey Jane Sinclair

Have any of the commenters here noticed most comments are by those of us in our 30's?

haadyah

I seem to be the only teenager around, ha.

Tara James

Thank you for posting this article. I have felt like this since I was a child and still struggle with it today as a 34yr old. Glad to know I’m not the only one.

Barbara Ramirez

It is so important that our classrooms are a safe place of learning for our students. We can set them up for success through classrooms that have: structure, safe learning environments, freedom to make choices and environments that celebrate differences!

Jennifer San Diego

I can relate to this article, even at 53 y/o. Success at the "tipping point" is a delusion if we believe that 10,000 hours of specialization is an assurance of success. Besides, the definition of success is relative. More than just a peak to climb, I consider it more now as an inner stability to acknowledge realities in life and an openness to learn from it and through it. I'm still on this journey, trying to find the right fit on the bike pedal.
The pandemic aggravated my health conditions, particularly the bones, nerves and muscles. I need a reinvention from my past design work lifestyle which demanded several sedentary seated hours. I may not be the High School basketball star whose bike accident crushed his dreams of going pro on court. If his passion led him to be a great sports commentator, I, too, continue to search for the bread and butter that can fill not just the stomachs but especially the mind, the heart and the soul. It's a real uphill climb in a poor but developing country, and much more now with the pandemic.
Praying to God who transcends this world helps me to acknowledge that He is bigger than anything we experience in this world. Having discovered this article on helping gifted children in their existential journey felt like a healing balm to address also my needs. As I take my own steps to therapy, I hope to help other parents as well.

Henry

I'm 34 currently, and from a young age to now I have felt this way. I've had moments of glossing over these thoughts, and you could call me successful in life as I am an engineer (not degreed) and make a good amount of money. As much as I have this "success", I feel it's wasted on me. I wish this success would have happened to my Dad, as I feel he is more deserving of it.

One thing about me is, I am a Christian. One line in this article stuck out and it is what I tried to put into words, but couldn't. That even as close as we can get to people, we are in fact ultimately alone. The only thing that can be closer, is having The Holy Spirit dwelling inside of you. Having that personal relationship can fill that void. Even knowing and experiencing that, I still fall short, and fall back into that existential depression.

If anyone reads this article and feels the way I do, like the type of people in this article. You are not alone, but life is difficult to grasp. I can't guarantee you won't ever feel this depression, but know you aren't the only one. As they say misery loves company, and you're in good company.

Ajay

Everything is meaningless brother.. different societies have different beliefs..so it's upto you if u want to endure them..the way we are all made to believe in something called god from our childhood ..makes many of us difficult to question it's existence as we deeply hallucinate it's existence..but truth is it is all made up by ancestors to have some order in the society ..and by some people to control the masses

Aislyn

I am 31 and have struggled with existential depression, bipolar 2 and ptsd since childhood. I am also transgender and sometimes it all just feels like such a heavy load.

It was somehow very validating to read this and touch in again to the fact that I am not the only one out here with the odd juxtaposition of a high functioning brain and so much inner turmoil

Kristaps Muravjovs

Hey man, I'm 32, fairly successful (with bouts of being hell-bent on destroying that success and myself, haha, but that's a topic for another day) and I gotta say - boy, was it a relief to read this article and your comment. Found it by googling "why does existential dread feel connected to the universe" (yeah, the choice of words may be lacking as English ain't my first language, but it really feels like it correlates to my curiosity and grasp on both, the sheer vastness of spacetime *and* it's inevitable end).
The article resonated with me intensely - it's like a confirmation that this does happen to people and I'm not going insane, as so far whenever I mention this to anyone - you guessed it - puzzlement , hostility or distancing. This article speaks about gifted kids - I'm far from being a child - but even at this age, this is the first time I get a confirmation that my sadness and frustration for people acting like thoughtless, arrogant a**holes to each other, as well as for me lacking kindness and love directed, (selfish, I know, lol) towards me, as I am willing (needing even?) to give love to others, to life itself as it really is a miracle. God, this has turned into chaos, haha. Sorry if this only confuses you, it's a little hard to stick to being coherent with this topic.
Lastly though - I've thought about spirituality in this context too. I don't believe in god - I do believe there's a lot I/we don't know though. And it's starting to feel almost necessary to make myself believe in some form of religion as otherwise it's getting dangerously close to an existential crisis for me. Idk, writing this drained me a little, so I don't have the energy to revise it to be more coherent - it's cool though, no need to reply (obviously) if you don't feel like it.
Thank you for the comment though, it really feels like it helped a little.

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