While obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) causes obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, the nature of symptoms can vary. Experts agree various types of OCD can be divided into subcategories, or subtypes, based on the OCD symptom and that experiences can be individual.
Existential OCD is an unofficial OCD subtype that involves thoughts about human existence and the meaning of life. These uncontrollable thoughts can cause one to question the meaning of life and fear death. It can also cause a fear of impending doom and wondering about what’s “real vs. unreal.”
Symptoms of existential OCD can cause depression, anxiety, and compulsive behaviors in an attempt to stop the intrusive thought cycles. Keep reading to learn more about existential OCD. We’re discussing what it is, how it differs from the more traditional form of OCD, what the symptoms and signs look like, and how you can cope if you or a loved one is affected.
What Is Existential OCD?
Existential OCD is a form of OCD that causes people to experience frequent and unwanted thoughts about the purpose of life and the reason for their existence. While it’s true that these are topics many people think about, the existential thoughts experienced with this mental health condition can become all-consuming.
“The repetitive, intrusive thoughts are centered around complicated, often philosophical questions that most people would have difficulty answering. For example, people with this disorder find themselves exploring why they are here, which can be both frightening and overwhelming.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
A person with existential OCD may spend hours asking questions and pondering the meaning of life, even when their thoughts are upsetting. People with this condition generally believe there are right and wrong answers to questions about the nature of human existence. Not knowing the answers to these questions can be intense and deeply distressing.
In addition to obsessive thoughts, people with existential OCD engage in repetitive behaviors related to their doubts and fears. For example, their compulsions can involve research, reading books, searching the internet, and asking others questions.
Existential OCD vs. typical OCD
OCD involves both repeated, unwanted thoughts, as well as urges to engage in compulsive behaviors. While obsessions and compulsions can vary, some common obsessions may include the fear of germs or harming others. Compulsions often involve counting, repetitive movements, or feeling the need to check things over and over.
The subtype known as existential OCD, which causes the philosophical obsessions and compulsions we’ve discussed, is less common. It can look very different from symptoms typically associated with more common forms of OCD.
People with existential OCD often fear uncertainty and may feel like they need to know life’s meaning to gain peace in their world. As a result, they can be driven to engage in compulsions designed to ease their fears. They might read philosophy books or attend religious services in search of answers.
Signs & Symptoms of Existential OCD
Existentialism is a topic that many people enjoy, but for someone with existential OCD, their intrusive thought patterns can cause significant distress. Questions like “Why do I exist?” or “What happens after death?” often plague people with existential OCD.
They genuinely believe there’s an answer to their questions and that they’ll find it if they keep searching. Unfortunately, their search for the truth involves both obsessions and compulsions that can dominate their life and relationships.
Existential obsessions revolve around thoughts and fears about philosophical questions related to our existence. Common obsessions might include:
- The meaning and purpose of life
- Fears about the afterlife
- Thoughts about the reality and the nature of the universe
- Worries about the difference between right and wrong
- Wondering if someone is actually real
- Beliefs that an outside force is controlling them
- Concerns that life is pointless
Like with other types of OCD, the compulsions associated with existential OCD are intended to ease the anxiety caused by their fears.
“Compulsions are the behaviors which people with this type of OCD perform to create some alleviation from their thoughts. This type of OCD is rooted in control, so researching excessively, trying to find data points that prove their reality, and “religion hopping” are just some compulsions that provide relief.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
People with this type of OCD struggle to cope with their fears and doubts about life and believe they’ll feel better if they can find answers. Common compulsions include:
- Constantly reading philosophy and science books to look for answers
- Attending a variety of religious services to find something that can quell their fears
- Looking for ways to confirm that their existence is real
- Questioning others about their religious beliefs
- Searching the internet for answers, even when it interferes with sleep or daily activities
- Asking people to reassure them that their ideas or thoughts are “right”
Causes of Existential OCD
Experts aren’t sure what causes OCD, nor are they sure why some people develop OCD symptoms. While research suggests a genetic component to OCD, other factors likely also contribute to the condition.
It’s normal to have questions about life, death, and our place in the universe. Many people begin pondering these topics when they reach adolescence. Most, however, can move on from their thoughts or find answers that satisfy their curiosity. Someone with existential OCD, though, will fixate on their questions, which can lead to compulsive behaviors.
What can trigger existential OCD?
For people with uncontrollable existential thoughts, anything that makes them think about life, death, or reality can be a catalyst for symptoms. Movies and TV shows that involve philosophy or questions about reality are known OCD triggers for many.
It’s also common for people to be triggered by ordinary conversations on these topics. Unfortunately, once a conversation starts, it can be difficult for someone with existential OCD to let go of the issue.
In addition to these, stress and significant life changes can trigger or make symptoms more severe, as well. Traumatic experiences, like the death of a loved one, are additional common triggers.
Treatment for Existential OCD
So, how can people learn to manage their symptoms? It’s okay to ask questions about life and the universe, but if thoughts become all-consuming, it’s time to think about getting help. Treatment can teach you to ease your anxiety before you feel compelled to turn to compulsions.
Therapy for OCD is one of the most effective treatments. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that teaches people to identify and then challenge negative or upsetting thoughts. CBT is known for its efficacy and is frequently used in treating OCD. A treatment plan may also include OCD medications and calming techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, in addition to therapy.
Get Professional Help for Existential OCD with Talkspace
While there are many stereotypes surrounding OCD, people with existential OCD can experience a wide range of symptoms. Though it’s not unusual to have questions about life or existence, you may want to talk to a mental health professional if you notice your thoughts are all you can think about.
Talkspace makes it easy to connect with a licensed therapist who can offer experienced guidance and support when dealing with existential OCD. If your thoughts and fears about existence are taking over your life, Talkspace can help. Learn to regain control of your thoughts and your life — get started today and see how Talkspace is changing the approach to accessible, affordable online therapy.
Talkspace mental health services
Convenient and secure online therapy from the comfort of your home
Psychiatric treatment from a licensed prescriber
Relationship-centered therapy that connects you and your partner
Specialized online therapy for ages 13-17