What is the difference between nihilism and depression?

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In this blog we will discuss some of the main differences between Nihilism and depression. 

We will also briefly discuss how nihilism and depression are connected and how one can deal with nihilistic anxiety and depression. 

What is the difference between nihilism and depression?

The main difference between nihilism and depression is that nihilism is a life philosophy whereas depression is a major mental disorder that may also include nihilistic beliefs. 

People with depression tend to hold on to and ruminate over nihilistic beliefs, often holding pessimistic points of view about their life and that of the world on the other hand, when someone has a nihilistic point of view does not necessarily mean that they are depressed.

Philosophy defines Nihilism as,

“…the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical scepticism that condemns existence.”

It can be understood as the acknowledgement that life is inherently meaningless and that everything we know and live for today has no value. 

Nihilistic feelings are often accompanied with nihilistic thoughts which can look a lot like the following:

“What’s the point of life if I’m just going to eventually die?”

“Does any of this even matter?”

While these feelings can come up at any time, certain things can trigger them, such as:

  • Reaching a dead end or finding yourself stuck, or having reached a dead end in life- maybe you have achieved the goals you had set out for yourself and find yourself dis-satistifed.
  • Losing physical strengths, losing a job, moving to another country without wanting to are all possible transitions that can lead to nihilistic feelings that can impair your ability to adapt to these changes.
  • Events that have left deep impressions on you, that have shattered the understanding you had about the life you have been living or the world that you believed to be good and safe. 
  • Large scale crises on a historical global scale can lead to the breaking down of what we believed to be the false understanding of security we lived in. 
  • Shifting from the identity of a spouse to a divorced man or woman can be troublesome especially if you do not have a solid sense of self which is authentic to you and separate from your partner. 
  • Death of a loved one can often bring us face to face with the notion of death which we neither like to acknowledge nor deny. It brings us close to our own mortality and makes us question what the purpose of living is if we are only going to die. 

On the other hand, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a leading publication used for diagnosis of mental disorders by mental health professionals, Major depressive disorder or depression is a serious mood disorder.

Depression is marked by the following symptoms:

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day- either by their own observation or observation made by others.
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia. 
  • A slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).
  • Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.

Some of the major causes of depression can include:

  • Family history where if your family member has depression, that does not mean that you are bound to develop the condition however, it does make you more susceptible to develop depression as a result of a trigger such as life stress, traumatic events etc that could lead to a depressive disorder. 
  • High levels of stress or being in a state of continuous stress with these symptoms can lead to deteriorating health, continued low moods, decrease in productivity which can impact your occupational life and also cause strain in your relationships. 
  • Another reason why you are experiencing crippling depression could be because of hormonal or chemical changes in your body such as in the case of Postpartum depression or due to changes during puberty and sexual development. 
  • Chronic illnesses can become a limiting factor in an individual’s life and cost the person’s mobility (ability to move) and independence, change the way they live, see themselves and also impact their relationships. 

When there is a lack of support when someone with this chronic illness is faced with stress and hopelessness, it can lead to deeper experiences of depression. 

  • Traumatic life events tend to impact an individual negatively and cause anxiety as a result of a sudden change in world view or the fear and anxiety that they faced during the traumatic event. 
  • Life circumstances such as death of a loved one, or after a separation or divorce is challenging irrespective of who has left and who has been left behind. 

It is a major life event that can cause mental anguish and lead to what is known as “adjustment disorder or situational depression”- referring to depression that arises after a change in life circumstances such as a loss of a relationship or loss of a person.

  • Another reason why one might be depressed could be because of the negative rumination. If you indulge in deep thinking without mindful awareness and intent, there is a likelihood that your thoughts might negatively impact your mood and cause the onset of depression.
  • Loneliness in solitude is one of the reasons why people who isolate themselves experience low moods and this desire for social connection is what causes much mental and emotional distress. 

How is nihilism and depression connected?

To understand how nihilistic philosophy is connected to depression we will have to first understand the Existential Positive Psychology Model of Suffering (EPPMS) which explains how these nihilistic feelings arise and how it impacts an individual.

This model proposes that for a person to experience nihilistic and existential anxiety, they first come across the realisation that they are suffering. 

This suffering is chronic, consequential, and cognitively threatening as it violates pre-held beliefs of the world and themselves. It could be caused by any of the causes mentioned earlier. Eg- Loss of a loved one. 

Suffering highlights the fact that nothing is in our control and the unpredictable nature of the world, it threatens people’s views of themselves and their beliefs; it can elicit fear of dying a meaningless death, and can render the world as uncaring and meaningless.

When one comes across suffering, it impairs their ability to make meaning because suffering challenges their understanding of life and existence. Their significance is threatened and their purpose is undermined because of the realisation that life is meaningless and groundless. 

When the ability to make meaning is compromised, this can lead to feelings of utter hopelessness and a nihilistic mindset which can cause intense anxiety and depression.

These emotions and thoughts can lead to isolation, lack of desire to engage with the world outside and themselves, suicidal thoughts, a fractured sense of self which can aggravate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

How to deal with nihilistic depression?

Here are some of the things you can do to overcome your nihilistic depression, the thoughts and feelings that come with it, positive psychology proposes building the elements of well-being in your life. 

Accepting the uncertainty

Getting comfortable with the uncertainty of human existence by accepting the way you feel and the fact that not everything has a definite answer is one of the first steps you can take to deal with this feeling of existential dread. 

Reaffirm values or seek out new set of values 

This means re-evaluating self beliefs you had about yourself and the world. It may even require you to unlearn some beliefs and re-learn new beliefs that are realistic and compassionate to your limitations as a human being. 

This will involve mindful attention to your thoughts and your beliefs in regards to everyone around you, the world and its systems, and yourself. 

 Building healthy relationships

Because we are social beings, we human beings benefit most by engaging in healthy relationships that help us grow and transcend. 

Seeking out healthy relationships is one of the best ways you can build meaning. This means cutting out people that hurt you emotionally, physically. 

It means building healthy boundaries between you and your loved ones so that your sense of self flourishes. 

Building individualism in the midst of healthy relationships can help you redefine who you are as a person and who you can be by being mindful of your strengths and the limitations of human existence.

Developing a Spiritual life

A spiritual life helps one to deal with the terrors of nothingness after death. It can help us develop a closer relationship with ourselves and with a force that is larger than ourselves.

Research has found that people who are more spiritual score higher in well-being because it allows them positive emotions, healthy support systems, and engagement in the act of worship or mindful practice of spiritual connection.

You can seek to meditate, practice a certain spiritual teaching, or find meaning through engaging in spiritual rituals and communities.

Seek professional help

If you have not been diagnosed, do not stick to self diagnosis based on your symptoms. Seek out professional consultations starting with your GP who can refer you to specialists in the field. 

Taking time to find a doctor who can help you with estimating the right dosage of medication and the right medical treatment can make the quality of your journey to recovery drastically different. 

Conclusion

In this blog we have discussed some of the main differences between Nihilism and depression. 

We have also briefly discussed how nihilism and depression are connected and how one can deal with nihilistic anxiety and depression. 

FAQ related to difference between nihilism and depression

What kind of people are nihilists?

A nihilist is someone who believes in nothing, has no loyalties, and no purpose- a true nihilist is one who is assured of the concept of meaninglessness and that nothing really matters. 

What are nihilistic delusions?

Nihilistic delusion is a symptom of psychosis where the person has a delusional belief of being dead, decomposed or not existing as a human being. 

References

Van Tongeren, D. R., & Showalter Van Tongeren, S. A. (2021). Finding Meaning Amidst COVID-19: An Existential Positive Psychology Model of Suffering. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 641747. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.641747

Existential Depression: What to Do When Your Search for Meaning Overwhelms You. Healthline. Retrieved on 30th April 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/existential-depression

The emotional dynamics of nihilism. Meaningness. Retrieved on 30th April 2022. https://meaningness.com/emotional-dynamics-of-nihilism

What is Existential Depression? Psych Central. Retrieved on 30th April 2022. https://psychcentral.com/depression/what-is-existential-depression

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