Existential OCD involves preoccupation with repetitive, intrusive thoughts involving unsettling and unanswerable philosophical questions. It is normal to ponder some existential questions, and people without OCD can accept that these questions are unanswerable. As such, they can move past these thoughts, accepting the uncertainty that comes with them.
Existential OCD develops when an individual becomes consumed with obsessing over these thoughts, begins to feel anxiety, distress, doubt, confusion, or another difficult emotion because of these obsessions, and may develop some compulsive behaviours (physical or mental) to find short-term relief from these difficult emotions. Unfortunately, the obsessive doubts (e.g., “Why am I having this thought”, or “What does this thought mean?”) cannot be argued or reasoned with and it is exhausting and endless to attempt to do so.
What are the symptoms?
Obsessions: The obsessions in existential OCD revolve around unsettling and unanswerable philosophical questions. This can involve questioning the nature of oneself, reality, the meaning of life, one’s purpose, and wondering how the universe works. Some examples of the intrusive thoughts associated with existential OCD include: “What is the meaning of life?”, “Is the world real?”, and “If God doesn’t exist, does any of this matter?”. The thoughts can take an infinite number of forms and are only limited by the brains capacity to imagine.
Compulsions: To manage the anxiety and distress associated with the uncertainty of an unanswerable, existential question, people with OCD seek to reduce the amount of anxiety and distress caused by these thoughts by behaving in repetitive ways that provide short-term relief. They may find themselves attempting to solve these questions by seeking reassurance, ruminating, talking with others, checking for evidence that they or the world is real (e.g., looking in the mirror), researching and/or mentally reviewing past experiences.
Why does it occur?
While existential thoughts are normal, existential OCD can occur when the existential thoughts clash with an individual’s morals or values (e.g., that life is important and meaningful). This clash can cause anxiety and distress, and the individual may attempt to suppress the thoughts, causing a rebound effect where the thoughts come back more often and more intensely. Individuals with existential OCD may try to find relief from the anxiety and distress by attempting to “solve” the unanswerable questions through certain compulsions. Since the questions are unanswerable, the individual may find themselves stuck in a cycle of obsessing, feeling anxious or distressed, and engaging in a compulsion to relieve the anxiety or distress for the short period until the obsession returns.