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Maybe You’re Not Depressed — Maybe You’re ‘Existentially Isolated’

Good news: You don’t have a chemical imbalance in your brain! Bad news: You can’t relate to a single other human being on any level whatsoever.

Ever feel deafened by the profound silence of God and the barreling inertia of your march toward death? It’s only Wednesday, after all. Well, I’ve got some news for ya: Your problem might not actually be a chemical imbalance, for which there are numerous medical treatments, but instead, existential isolation, defined as an “unbridgeable gap between oneself and any other being,” compounded with an inability to manage the terror of your awareness of your mortality. Yaaaaaaaaaaay. 

“Depression is a psychological mood disorder defined by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loss of interest in activities a person once enjoyed. Existential isolation (EI) is the awareness that others do not (or cannot) understand one’s subjective reality,” says Peter Helm, a graduate student at the University of Arizona and lead author of a study on existential isolation published in the October 2019 issue of the Journal of Research in Personality. So rather than simply feeling disconnected from others, EI is marked by a fundamental feeling of being completely different from anyone else. “Presumably, experiences of EI can lead to depression (e.g., if you’re constantly feeling like other people ‘just don’t get you’), but that’s not necessarily the case,” says Helm.

Helm’s team also found that a sense of existential isolation is linked to “death thought accessibility” (DTA), aka, death-related thoughts. According to the study, “DTA is typically measured via a word-stem completion task where participants are asked to fill in the missing letters to various word stems, some of which can be completed with neutral or death words (e.g., KI _ _ ED can be completed with KISSED or KILLED). Conceptually, DTA occurs when one’s anxiety buffer is threatened, because the buffer functions to keep death-related cognition and associated potential anxiety at bay.” 

Normally, our “anxiety buffer” prevents us from thinking too much about our demise. A lot of aspects of our life help shore up our anxiety buffer: Our connection to our identities, whether that be nationality, culture or career, is an essential component, as are faith in worldviews or norms and our individual self-esteem. Basically, having a strong sense of values to dictate how we navigate society and guide our lives helps us forget about the whole “gonna die one day” thing.  

To assess the impact of these values, researchers asked around 1,500 students to complete surveys in which they measured the extent they agreed with statements regarding their self-esteem, cultural identity and loneliness, such as, “I often feel left out.” To measure existential isolation, the survey utilized statements like, “People around me tend to react to things in our environment the same way I do,” wherein strongly disagreeing would indicate high levels of EI. DTA was measured according to word-stem completion tasks like the one above.

As expected, those who demonstrated significant existential isolation were also more likely to be thinking about death. People who reported higher self-esteem and lower loneliness were less likely to be dreaming about jumping off a cliff, but the results remained mixed — that is, you could think you’re the hottest bitch in town with a great set of supportive pals and still be contemplating a one-way trip into the ocean. That said, that’s less likely to be the case. 

Helm and his fellow researchers also conducted a secondary study, in which they attempted to dissect existential isolation and death thought accessibility by gender. They found that even accounting for differences in loneliness and self-esteem, men still reported higher feelings of existential isolation than women. “Men consistently indicate that others around them do not share or understand their experiences compared to women,” the researchers say in the published study. 

One possible factor for this that the team isolated was communal value, finding that women were more likely to report a sense of closeness with one’s community, thereby contributing to a greater sense of existential purpose. They hypothesize that because communal values are considered more “feminine” — in that they’re associated with comfort, caring for others and affection — men may feel distanced from communal values more broadly, even if they aren’t actually lonely. 

“Other work has suggested that gender differences in emotional intelligence may also explain these differences,” says Helm. In his analysis, men’s tendency to avoid discussing feelings may be to blame: “Men are socialized to be ‘tough’ and ‘manly,’ which means not being emotional or talking about how they really think and feel. In my mind, these social pressures increase the likelihood that men are going to be feeling existentially isolated. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to talk about their feelings, etc. which likely leads to the feeling that others do understand their subjective experiences.” 

Being existentially isolated might seem like a more complex problem than depression — doctors don’t exactly prescribe SSRIs for my Kierkegaardian anxieties about living — and perhaps, for some, it is: It really depends how willing you are to integrate yourself more thoroughly with the rest of society. “My sense is that authentic and meaningful relationships with others is the best way to remedy this experience,” says Helm. “By authentic and meaningful, this doesn’t have to be a romantic partner — it can be anyone that the individual trusts and feel like they can be themselves [with]. Along these lines, perhaps for men in particular, learning to be vulnerable with others and sharing one’s inner experiences may help avoid these feelings.” 

So the cure, then, is simply to undo millennia of societal expectations and gender norms. Piece of cake.