When adulting is harder than you ever imagined, or when life has thrown you a seemingly impossible situation, depression symptoms like feeling lonely, burned out, and totally down on yourself can be part of your daily experience.
But there are many shades of depression, and many unique experiences of it. In many cases, it can help to think of depression in terms of either being existential or clinical.
In this post, I’m going to explain some of the key differences between these two different types of depression, so you’ll be able to determine if what you’re going through is clinical depression or existential depression.
What is Depression?
Depression is a word that gets thrown around a lot in popular culture. Sometimes the word depression is used as an emotion (i.e. “I’m so depressed that I failed that calculus test”) and at other times it can be used like a label (i.e. “She’s been depressed since her mother died”).
From a mental health perspective, we can consider a depressed state to be a common human experience that can include:
- crushing disappointment
- negative thought loops
- feeling lost
But depressive states don’t always look and feel the same for all of us.
Let’s explore both types.
What is Existential Depression?
We can understand existential depression by considering that we won’t all experience depression in a way that checks each box for a full clinical diagnosis. But every human is guaranteed to encounter depressed feelings of some sort throughout their lifetime.
When we talk about “existential depression,” we are referring to situational depression symptoms that don’t rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis but rather emerge naturally in response to loss, life challenges, transitions, or periods of seeking deep meaning and purpose.
Existential depression is a relatively normal human experience that does not reach a level of clinical concern, but it can still make day-to-day life more difficult.
Symptoms of existential depression can range from feeling stuck in the “Sunday scaries” all week to enduring a level of deep exhaustion that just makes you want to ghost everyone and everything.
Existential depression can feel like success-burnout too, making it hard to enjoy your wins because you hate your job, lack a sense of purpose, and are already dreading the next challenge or project.
Again, it’s a normal human experience to go through seasons of existential depression symptoms.
But even though you’re able to function through it, existential depression symptoms can wreak plenty of havoc in your life!
It’s important to recognize symptoms of existential depression when they are happening, and to seek positive support so you don’t become bogged down and overwhelmed.
Existential depression symptoms can occur when we go through:
- huge life changes (positive or negative)
- heartbreaking losses (of a person, relationship, identity, or dream)
- times when we are asking “bigger questions” and pondering the meaning of life
And again, existential depression symptoms may not check all the boxes for a formal diagnosis of clinical depression, but they can still have an enormous impact on your quality of life.
Maybe you recently graduated from college and feel hopeless about the job market or your enormous student loan balance. Perhaps you may feel trapped in a dead-end job, already wishing you had made different choices. Maybe you were recently ghosted by a friend or significant other and now find yourself questioning your worth. Or you might be questioningeverything after facing the first major loss of your lifetime (the death of a parent, grandparent, sibling or friend).
When you’re going through a bought of existential depression, therapy can help you:
- untangle yourself from the downward spiral
- grieve the losses that have deeply impacted you
- regain self-compassion and build effective coping skills
- create a vision of your life that feels hopeful and meaningful
What is Clinical Depression?
On the other hand, maybe the dark, lonely, “numb to life” or “can’t stop crying” experience you’ve been havingis actually an episode of diagnosable clinical depression.
It may be time to work with your therapist to reach a formal diagnosis and create a strong, powerful treatment plan for fighting back against an episode of clinical depression if:
- you experience a large number of depression symptoms
- you feel completely knocked you off your feet and unable to function well
- you are struggling to want to live
Clinical depression can affect our mind and body, and can include a wide range of mental, emotional and physical side effects. There may be times when fighting back against clinical depression will call for a team approach – perhaps working with a therapist for talk therapy, working with a psychiatrist for medication, and seeing your general doctor to rule out medical causes for your symptoms (such as poor sleep).
Common Signs of Clinical Depression
Some of the classic signs of clinical depression that your therapist will look for when making a diagnosis include:
- trouble enjoying things that used to make you happy
- weight changes (significant gain or loss)
- appetite changes (increase or decrease)
- trouble sleeping
- trouble concentrating
- headaches or muscle aches
- unreasonable levels of guilt
- a hopeless and dark outlook
- trouble keeping up with your responsibilities
- thoughts of death or suicide
How Does Depression Therapy Help?
Whether your experience is one of existential depression, clinical depression, or something in between, it’s important to know that you can fight back and start feeling better.
The sooner you seek support and start talking honestly about what’s happening in your inner world, the sooner you may find relief from the isolation, fear, loneliness, and secrecy that depression creates.
In therapy, a big part of fighting back against depression is learning to recognize its critical, bullying voice and untangling yourself from the untrue things depression led you to mistakenly believe.
Treatment for depression can feel like releasing the valve on a pressure cooker. When you find a safe space to share your inner thoughts and demons, it can be a huge relief to talk about the dark scary stuff.
It can be empowering and life-affirming to start noticing and challenging all the lies depression has told you. It can feel like getting your life back.
Goals of Depression Therapy
Depression therapy aims to help you imagine a more hopeful future. This can include helping you discover your authentic values and empowering you to start taking baby steps toward living in line with who you truly are.
In depression therapy, your therapist may also encourage you to:
- take small doable actions to challenge the patterns of depression
- develop a warmer, kinder, more compassionate relationship with yourself
- schedule regular positive activities to look forward to (a helpful life hack for boosting your mood)
- develop a unique game plan for taking positive action toward the life you most want to have.
Ready to partner with a compassionate counselor to address your depression? Reach out today to schedule your first appointment with one of our Charlotte counselors and get the help you deserve.