Existential OCD: Otherwise Known as Existentialism on Steroids

Questioning the nature of existence isn’t strange in and of itself. But OCD can make it feel like a tormenter disguised in philosopher’s clothing.

Written by Jenn Shenouda-Levine

01 Existential OCD is a subtype in which sufferers are preoccupied with the philosophical aspects of life. The brain fixates on abstract questions and creates an illusion that they need to be solved.

02 Unlike other themes, Existential OCD can be difficult to treat because it lacks tangible exposure opportunities.

03 Jenn is a Toronto-based writer and OCD sufferer. You can keep up with her at jennshenoudalevine.com

As the famous movie character Forest Gump’s mother once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

Unless, of course, you’ve got existential OCD like me, in which case you not only “never know what you’re going to get” but also question whether the box, the chocolates and even yourself exist!

Existential OCD or Exi-OCD, as I like to call it, can be so challenging to put into words, and yet so persistent in its torment of its sufferers.

I mean, how do you commit yourself to doing anything in this world if you’re not ever sure “this world” exists? The last thing I want to do is trigger other sufferers by posing these questions, but I’ve seen so few individuals, even within the OCD community, broach the subject. And truthfully, I hardly know where to start. Questioning reality is nothing new, just crack open any book by any number of philosophers throughout the ages. But when your brain runs wild with existential questions, it’s a whole different story.

As someone who has worked hard on various exposures since my OCD diagnosis, I find that Exi-OCD is the most difficult to shake. This might be because it's already so metaphysical in nature. If you’re scared of self-harm than you can expose yourself to your triggers, like razors and knives, over time and with the proper guidance. Same goes for contamination issues. But how on earth do you expose yourself to nature of existence, or rather, the possible lack thereof? I’ll let you know if I ever figure that one out.

Meanwhile, what exactly does it feel like to be triggered by the nagging nudge of that pseudo-philosophical bully that is existential OCD? This is the most concrete personal example that I can give you.

Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night in my bed next to my husband. At first, I’ll just feel slightly disoriented before I get that awful sense of dread in the pit of my stomach that radiates all the way to my arms. I’ll ask myself, “Am I really me?”, “Is he really he?”, “Are we really here?” Everything that I find comforting about my life: my bed, my husband, our room, even my personhood, will be put into question. What if we are all fake plastic trees? What if we are pure nothingness floating in the great vat of the abyss? What if? What if? What if?

As someone who has worked hard on various exposures since my OCD diagnosis, I find that Exi-OCD is the most difficult to shake.

Sometimes I’ll be so scared by these dissociative episodes that I'll scream out my husband’s name in the middle of the night, as if saying it out loud can bring me the golden kernel of certainty that my OCD so craves. He will hold me and lull me back to sleep, sometimes slowly and painfully. He’s been here before. He knows the drill. In the morning, I’ll wake up feeling unsteady but a little bit better. There’s something about the light of day that never fails to calm me. I feel more grounded. I feel more “here”.

If this resonates with you I want you to know a couple of things. First off, you’re not alone. Questioning and challenging the nature of existence isn’t all that strange. Your OCD might aggravate your curious mind but remember that questioning reality is just that: the symptom of a curious mind. There’s no way to really test it out, so instead of panicking, why not have some fun with it?

The next time you have a triggering Matrix-type thought, possibly along the lines of “What if I don’t exist?” why not tell your brain “So what? Maybe I do exist, maybe I don’t.” I know that may seem hard to do, but how else do you confront such a persistent and relentless obsession?

Because in the end, isn’t life just like a box of chocolates? Maybe it’s all a dream within a dream within a dream. Maybe the chocolates are nothing but a chalky mirage. But in my humble obsessive-compulsive opinion, that doesn’t make them any less delicious.

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