‘Existential despair’, a painful sense that no human activity of any kind could ever be of any worth.[1]

‘Life is nothing until it is lived. It is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning we give it.’ - Jean Paul Sartre

Crises in many forms, and the impact they have on an individual’s life, has long been of interest to research psychologists. The coronavirus itself will bring many different forms of crises for people to go through, including existential crises. ‘An existential crisis differentiates from other crises in that an existential crisis includes the inner conflicts and anxieties that accompany human responsibility, independence, freedom, issues of purpose and commitment.[2]

For everyone, at anytime, not just during the pandemic, there are days that are undoubtedly harder than others. On the harder days, it’s normal to feel our heavier emotions, to maybe have a cry, or vent to your best friend about your issues. These days are just part of the ebb and flow of daily life. But then there are days when the last thing you want to do is get out of bed. Days when your legs feel weighed down keeping you below the surface. You don’t want to move, you don’t want to talk and smile and exchange pleasantries, or do your work and meet your deadlines, because, really, what’s the point?

This is a question that many people ask in the face of an existential crisis, when your sense of self is just an abstract thought and you don’t know if anything really matters. You reflect on the mass suffering that is happening today and that has always been happening, and wonder why so many people suffer for no apparent reason. In fact, ‘existential crisis is defined as a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of his life: whether his life has any meaning, purpose or value.[3]

Over the last few weeks the coronavirus has probably had many people wondering what on earth is going on. How will they possibly survive it financially, emotionally or perhaps even, literally. As almost everyone in the whole world is forced into isolation, the amount of people experiencing existential crises will no doubt increase. Indeed, isolation can even be a trigger for existential crises. According to Yalom in his book on existential therapy, he stated that one of the things that can cause psychological problems is in fact, isolation[4].

If, whilst in isolation, we spend too much time trying to answer unanswerable questions, and solve unsolvable problems, we may wind up despairing. Feelings of despair can both come from, and lead to, depression. Dealing with depression and despair is no easy feat, and there is no shame in getting help, medically or therapeutically. If you believe that feelings of depression and despair are affecting your life, step back and assess how you could possibly help yourself. Seek the advice of friends and family, and a healthcare professional. Though all your feelings are valid, it’s a shame to waste your time in a state of despair when the help is out there and readily available.

In times of despair, even the most religious of people can have doubts about life’s meaning, or if there even is one. But here’s an important question to ask, why does life have to have any meaning in the first place? The search for meaning is often a search for justification of our pain. But what if we could let go of the desire for meaning? What if we could accept that there really is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and that life is just as it is - just this. Though this may be an uncomfortable thought for some, it can actually be quite liberating. Life is working just fine by itself, working as it does, without having to be controlled by you. This approach is not an easy one to take initially, as we often clammer for some kind of meaning to give ourselves a sense of purpose. The truth is that your purpose can be whatever you want to be, but ultimately is to be here, now, and experience life as it comes. No more, no less. Taking away the need for meaning, life can become a lot less serious, and you may find room within yourself to be more playful with life, a key factor in happiness and joy.

Therapist and team member at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis Jonathan Foiles strongly advocates making time for yourself and checking in with your needs in the face of feelings of despair. In an article concerning the importance of holding on to hope in the face of global injustices, Foiles explains: ‘My job involves containing feelings of deep despair, and it is all too easy to carry that despair home with me. But if I spend all of my free time marinating in the problems of my patients, I lose my perspective and thus my ability to effectively help them. Similarly, we gain little by staying glued to Twitter or constantly refreshing our news apps. This is not a time for ignorance, sure, but neither is it a time to try to take on the entire world’s pain minute after minute. If you have any religious or spiritual beliefs, now is the time to lean into them. If not, that’s fine, look for other ways to make life meaningful. Get out into nature, practice meditation, read a novel. What works for you may not work for me, but disconnect and give yourself some time to breathe.[5]

Dealing with feelings of despair

  • Create a purpose. Your purpose can be whatever you want it to be. This doesn’t have to be a grandiose, highly virtuous purpose, just something you enjoy doing yourself and others. When you do find it, immerse yourself in it with passion and eagerness. If you currently work in a job in which you feel purposeless and unsatisfied, try to find a new job, or new opportunities.
  • Don’t allow yourself too much idle time. It’s nice to have time away from daily duties and responsibilities, but too much time spent idle is bound to leave you wondering about what the point of being here is in the first place, and if you can’t balance that type of existential questioning with activities and work to keep your mind focused. Then you’ll likely ruminate on potential or hypothetical negatives.
  • Be responsible for your happiness. No one is coming to save you, which is maybe the source of your despair, Accept this, and save yourself.
  • The hopelessness and helplessness that comes from feelings of despair can leave you feeling powerless. Make an effort to focus on areas of your life in which you can make a difference, like in your relationships, your work, and your health.
  • Set yourself at least one new challenge every day. Goals drive us to move. The challenge may be doing something that scares you, or sitting with a personal conflict that you have been avoiding. These things are healthy for the mind.
  • Don’t worry about uncertainty. Trying to find guarantees and certainties in life is absurd. Accept that life has uncertainties and is ultimately unpredictable. This might seem like a despairing thought, but it takes a weight off your shoulders when you realise that you don’t have to, and can’t, as a matter of fact, control the future. It doesn’t even exist yet.
  • Avoid procrastination. Make decisions and take action. Even if they turn out to be the wrong decisions, you’ll learn something, which is an awful lot more than you get from procrastinating.
  • Don’t isolate yourself from others. Make an effort to regularly connect with people. We were made to be social; too much alone time is not good for the mind and heart. Close, personal connections go a long way in helping us to feel less alone. Even offering a kind word or a smile to a stranger can help us feel connected.
  • Try not to ruminate on the big, unanswerable questions about life and the universe. It’s not your responsibility to figure out the meaning of life or the secrets of the universe. It’s good to be curious, but when these questions are negatively affecting your life and your relationships then it might be best to take a step back and focus on more concrete things.
  • Get out of the victim mindset. The things that happen to you do not define who you are. You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond.
  • Remember that it’s not all about you. Learn to accept that you’re probably not that significant in the grand scheme of things, and let go of the desire to be.

In his article in business, political, art, and technology based magazine Slate, Foiles had the following to say about despair and the importance of cultivating and maintaining hope: ‘Despair closes off the future, making us feel assured that all of our attempts at building a more just and humane world are doomed. Hope holds the door open, if ever so slightly, to the chance that it could be different. Do everything you can to keep it cracked open.[6]’ This piece of advice could not be more pertinent than now, during the extraordinary times we are living in. Let’s remain hopeful for our futures.