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Existential OCD: Obsessing Over Life and Purpose

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While OCD is a relatively common condition that can range from moderate to severe, existential OCD poses unique challenges relating to questions about one’s purpose and life’s meaning. Read to find out how this condition manifests in individuals and how it can be managed and treated.  

What is Existential OCD? 

Existential OCD is a type of OCD where intrusive, obsessive thoughts revolve around existential themes, including the meaning and purpose of life, death, and more. These questions are typically impossible to conclusively address, and thus, for a person with existing OCD, it can consume or haunt them. Individuals with this condition face anxiety and distress as they contemplate these thoughts over and over again, developing compulsive behaviors in the process.   

Signs and Symptoms of Existential OCD 

While having existential thoughts in itself isn’t problematic, people with OCD face significant distress from it. Thus, it is important to keep track of the nature and severity of their existentialism. If questions surrounding one’s own existence, death, afterlife, or preoccupation with philosophical and metaphysical themes persist in a way that significantly affects one’s daily functioning, it is a sign that the person is dealing with existential OCD.  

Common misdiagnosis of existential OCD 

Due to the fact that existential thoughts and questions are not uncommon, it can be difficult to separate it from OCD. Even when a person faces extreme anxiety due to existential issues, it is often misdiagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder or depression. In cases where clear signs of anxiety or depression are not found, it is also possible that individuals are not even diagnosed, and their concerns are brushed aside as worry or fear, not related to any mental health condition. Thus, careful evaluation of specific obsessions and resulting compulsive behaviors is necessitated.  

Causes of Existential OCD 

While the exact causes of existential OCD are not clear, research indicates it could result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and social factors. It is commonly observed that those with OCD have increased philosophical sensitivity and are prone to existential crises. While these could have resulted from personal experiences or trauma, studies have not yet been able to confirm the causes. Predisposition to mental health disorders such as OCD and anxiety has also emerged as a possible reason for increased existential dread.  

Examples of Existential OCD 

One of the obvious examples of a person facing existential OCD is when a person obsesses over the meaning of life or the nothingness that comes after death. People may also fixate on moral issues and make decisions based on obscure ethics or the need for purpose in every action. They may also question their place in the world and their impact on it, often leading to self-esteem issues and, in turn, increased anxiety. They may also come across as demotivated due to their belief that everything they do is ultimately meaningless. 

How Do I Know It's OCD? 

The key difference between merely having intrusive thoughts and existential OCD is the sheer debilitating effect of it. In OCD, these thoughts are persistent, intrusive, and highly distressing, interfering significantly with everyday life. While most individuals are generally able to refocus on other things, people with this condition fixate on it to a point where they can’t let go of it. This leads to them performing mental rituals and specific acts to alleviate the anxiety, which is a major sign of OCD.  

How can my family help with my Existential OCD? 

Due to the state of seemingly eternal dread that a person with existential OCD can be in, it can take a toll on family members and loved ones. It can be hard to understand at first, but it is important that you provide support and encouragement when seeking professional help. Ensure that you don’t reject their thoughts and let them know that you are willing to listen to them. Avoid being judgmental, provide reassurance, and find ways to de-escalate their anxiety by mixing in topics that will bring some positivity and light-heartedness to the mix.  

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The Fear of "Going Crazy" in OCD Sufferers 

The fear of “going crazy” is a common aspect of OCD, where an individual’s obsessions and distressing thoughts may make them question their sense of self. Due to the cyclical nature of OCD, with constant compulsive behaviors counteracting obsessions, it increases concern within the individual. The intense and irrational way that these existential obsessions and fears manifest makes one lose control over their own thoughts or actions, reinforcing the idea that they are potentially going “crazy,” which is never the case for people with mental health conditions.  

Treatment and Management of Existential OCD 

Treatment for existential OCD typically involves a combination of therapeutic approaches and medication. These specific modalities are aimed at reducing the fear, irrationality, and compulsions associated with existential OCD. Some of the common treatments include the following.  

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is an effective treatment for existential OCD, which involves identifying irrational thoughts and replacing them with more positive ones over time. It starts with gradually exposing the individual to their uncertainties and fears while enabling them to resist their compulsions step by step. For existential OCD, a professional may look to remove the fear and hopelessness that comes with existentialism through therapy sessions.  

Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) 

Exposure Response Prevention is a type of CBT where a person is systematically exposed to fearful and irrational thoughts that trigger their obsessions in order to build positive strategies of tolerance and response. Usually, people with OCD tend to develop compulsive acts and thoughts to counteract their anxieties. Through this measure, a therapist evaluates their mental process and equips it to better handle their compulsions. For existential OCD, this may include repeated rethinking of existential questions, possibly through continued discussions on them.  

Practicing Mindfulness 

Mindfulness techniques, despite not being therapies themselves, are effective at helping individuals with existential OCD to cultivate awareness and stay in the present. It works as a great calming tool and allows them to stay in touch with their emotions and fears. With a better grasp of their feelings, they are able to participate in therapy sessions better and facilitate smoother recovery.  

Get the help of Cadabams in Finding Peace and Moving Forward 

Existential OCD can be debilitating and impact the individual’s everyday life as well as disrupt their families and personal relationships. If you or your loved one is coping with this condition, reach out to Cadabam's Hospitals. Our experts are trained to identify disruptive thought patterns and find solutions to manage and treat OCDs of various types. Take the first step towards recovery.

If you are searching for a solution to your problem, Cadabam’s Rehabilitation Centre can help you with its team of specialized experts. We have been helping thousands of people live healthier and happier lives for 30+ years. We leverage evidence-based approaches and holistic treatment methods to help individuals effectively manage their OCD. Get in touch with us today. You can call us at +91 96111 94949

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1. What does existential OCD feel like? 

Existential OCD can feel like being trapped in a relentless cycle of intrusive thoughts about the meaning of life, death, and purpose, causing overwhelming anxiety and distress. 

2. What is the best treatment for existential OCD? 

The best treatment for existential OCD involves a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure Response Prevention (ERP), mindfulness, and other techniques to address irrational thoughts and behaviors effectively. 

3. What triggers existential OCD? 

Existential OCD can be triggered by a combination of genetic, environmental, and social factors, leading to increased philosophical sensitivity and existential crises, often exacerbated by personal experiences or trauma. 

4. Can OCD be self cured? 

OCD cannot be self-cured, but it can be effectively managed and treated with professional help, including therapy and medication. Self-care strategies like mindfulness may help alleviate symptoms but are not standalone cures. 

5. How do I know if I have existential OCD? 

If you find yourself fixating on questions about the meaning of life, death, and your existence, experiencing persistent anxiety and distress, and engaging in compulsive behaviors to alleviate these thoughts, you may have existential OCD.

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