- OCD subtypes
- Existential OCD
Existential OCD or a ‘Deep Thinker’? How to Tell The Difference
Existential OCD is characterized by the preoccupation with philosophical questions related to life and existence. For example, someone with existential OCD might experience intrusive thoughts centered on the meaning of life, the universe, and/or their human existence. They might experience frequent doubt about their perceptions of reality. Someone with existential OCD might also experience recurrent feelings of depersonalization and derealization, which only exacerbate their doubts about their experiences of reality. They might also frequently question the purpose of life.
As with other presentations of OCD, it is helpful to look beyond the content of the obsessions and consider more the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Just as someone with religious scrupulosity might appear to be an extremely devout follower of their faith, someone with existential OCD might appear to be a “deep thinker.” In fact, there is a whole field devoted to figuring out the meaning of life, and yet, not every philosopher has existential OCD.
So, what’s the difference?
The meaning one makes of their thoughts, the urgent distress one feels because of their thoughts, and the behaviors that follow this distress, is what separates people with OCD from those with a genuine interest in existential inquiries.
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This sort of anguished search for meaning is not to be confused with the sense of ruminative hopelessness and meaninglessness that is common among people with depression, nor is it the equivalent to the type of endless sense of worrying germane to Generalized Anxiety Disorder. What distinguishes existential obsessions from the aforementioned experiences is the presence of compulsions.
Common compulsions for individuals with existential OCD include mental checking/testing to gauge if one feels in touch with reality, ruminating in hopes that “this time” they will find the answers, and excessive research and reading of philosophical and scientifics texts. Conversely, some may engage in avoidance of anything related to this topic, such as movies about simulations and videos about the universe, space, or the meaning of life. Individuals with existential OCD commonly also seek reassurance from others by asking them for their answers to their obsessive questions or asking them how they perceive reality.
As is true for other themes of OCD, the best treatment for existential OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention. Unfortunately, as is common for many people with OCD, many individuals may end up in traditional talk therapy before they land in the right treatment. The rationale for ERP over traditional talk therapy is based on the idea that discussing possible answers to these unanswerable questions is, in fact, a compulsion. Even purely cognitive approaches, like the use of thought challenging and cognitive reframing, reinforce the idea that the individual in treatment sincerely needs to pay these thoughts any mind at all. Just like with other forms of OCD, when an individual uses an ERP approach, they learn to treat these thoughts just as they would treat anything else their imaginative brain spews out.
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- Learning about theories related to alternate universes
- Telling yourself “I’ll never know for sure if I’m real”/”I’ll never know if there is meaning to life”/ “I might never know if I’m in a simulation” etc regularly throughout your day
- Watching movies/tv shows that feature themes of unreality/simulations/eternity/alternate universes
- Engaging in day-to-day tasks and saying, “I don’t know for sure if what I’m perceiving is real”
After engaging in these exposures, response prevention is key. It could be helpful to remind individuals with OCD that people have been trying to figure out the answers to your obsessional questions since the beginning of time, and the likelihood that they are the one to unlock these answers is close to nil. Combine this infinitesimal likelihood with the fact that all of their attempts to think their way out of distress has only led them deeper into suffering– their options are to suffer more, or to sit with their distress right now, giving themselves a chance to learn that they don’t have to have an answer.
If you have existential OCD, I encourage you to think about what else you could do with the time and energy you have been spending on compulsions. You might not have an answer to what this all means, but life resides in that gray space between knowing and not-knowing. Even with these questions unanswered, life beckons you to live it.
If you are looking to break free from existential OCD, then please consider giving NOCD a call. A free 15-minute call can put you on the path to ERP with a qualified and affordable ERP specialist.
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NOCD Therapists specialize in treating Existential OCDView all therapists
Licensed Therapist, LMHC
My journey as a therapist has brought me in front of more and more cases of OCD, which has led to specialization in OCD treatment. My experience working at intensive in-home services for children & families, and intensive outpatient programs, has prepared me for even the biggest challenges. During sessions, I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s one of the most effective treatments for OCD, and works for any OCD subtype.
Licensed Therapist, LMFT
I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017, and as an OCD specialist, I only use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. Research shows that ERP is the most effective OCD treatment available. I truly enjoy helping people understand themselves through ERP and I’m grateful to be part of a process that helps people gain control of their lives.
Licensed Therapy, LMHC
I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.