Existential crisises happen at every age, especially to people with minds that are wired, just a little bit differently.
Imagine you are an emotionally sensitive, altruistic person who deeply contemplates world issues, the meaning life and death, and the future of humanity, and you have a heightened understanding of your limited ability to affect change on any of it. Your brain can see a hundred different problems with a hundred different outcomes and can't help but think of them constantly. On top of that, few people care as deeply as you do or fully understand the breadth of your concerns. Now imagine you are a child or teen with a limited emotional capacity to fully process this mature and complex information you are aware of. You try to share your concerns with adults and they say, "Don't worry about it. Everything will be okay." Your friends just tell you to stop thinking so hard.
Maybe you don’t have to imagine, because this has been your life experience.
Gifted people are often able to recognize best possible outcomes others cannot see, and are often unwilling to consider. Sometimes, these bright, visionaries are left feeling isolated, rejected and hopeless for the future as a result, which can lead to a state of existential depression and/or anxiety. While it can start at any age, it usually begins in middle or high school when people begin to explore their identity, are seeking belonging within a group, and are contemplating how they fit into the world. It can also be triggered by life events such as experiencing a trauma, the loss of a loved one or some other event that creates a greater awareness of their their mortality, power over life circumstances or suffering in the world. While a gifted child may be intellectually brilliant, their brains are still developing and their emotional capacity is likely to be underdeveloped by comparison, and age appropriate.
Young people who are having an existential crisis are at a greater risk of becoming suicidal if they are not supported by those close to them. If they are rejected by family, peers and others, they may feel there is no place for them in this world, and there is no point in trying to make a difference. As their sense of alienation grows, so does their sense of hopelessness and likeliness to give up for good.
Research indicates gifted people are not inherently more likely to become depressed than others. Existential depression, is different than other types of depression, however. Depression and anxiety among gifted people can be triggered by environmental factors like a lack of support and understanding from family, peers and in the academic environment. Existential depression and anxiety often result from a person’s internal feelings and thoughts in reaction to events and their perception of the world. They may have meta-cognition (analyzing one’s own thought process), a deep desire to make a difference, and feelings of isolation and powerlessness which result in intense, intrusive and ongoing thoughts.
You can help your loved one to feel connected and be empowered by letting them know others share their feelings, values and ideas, and encourage them to get involved in causes they care about. Teach your children and teens they are not personally responsible for saving the world, but can act together with others to make a difference. Teach them even the small things they do matter, such as being kind to others, caring for the environment and helping out when needed. This can help them to feel more connected, and will nurture their desire and ability to make a difference in the world they are a part of.
If your child’s existential crisis is triggered by a loss or trauma, they may be experiencing profound grief, fear of future losses, fear of their own death or the death of others, and troubling thoughts about impermanence. They may be wondering what the purpose of living is, saddened that everything will eventually come to an end, worry that they are unsafe, or believe nothing they really do matters. It is important to allow them to talk about their feelings, provide emotional validation by acknowledging the feelings they are sharing, and show empathy for those feelings. Then help them to identify times they feel safe, what gives their lives meaning and purpose, and support them in those areas.
Gifted children aren’t the only ones who struggle with existential depression and anxiety. Many gifted adults do to. If you or a loved one are experiencing existential depression or anxiety don’t be afraid to reach out to a caring professional in your area who understands the needs of gifted people, because you are never truly alone.
About the Author: Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. Christy also assists in the training of other therapists learning a somatic approach to teaching trauma. She nearly 14 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have survived past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body. Christy also offers online support to those anywhere in California.