Existential and Depersonalization OCD

I remember the exact moment this worry began.

I was 16 years old, burning a fire with friends under a clear night sky.

I gazed up at the stars and this fear hit me out of nowhere.

I felt like nothing. Trapped inside the universe, hurtling through the vastness of space not knowing where we are heading.

Interestingly, this OCD came and went at 16, 25 and 32 years of age. I remember this specifically due to where I was at the time (school, work etc), it is not something that has been constant for me, and isn’t currently.

The International OCD Foundation describes Existential OCD (sometimes referred to as Philosophical OCD) as:

...intrusive, repetitive thinking about questions which cannot possibly be answered, and which may be philosophical or frightening in nature, or both. The questions usually revolve around the meaning, purpose, or reality of life, or the existence of the universe or even one’s own existence.

I became terrified of the concept of infinity and eternity

That exact moment of gazing up to the stars brought on a phobia I didn’t know about.

I panicked like I suddenly woke up on the edge of a skyscraper. But instead of fearing the drop below, I had a fear of the endless expanse above me.

It was like a fear of heights but worse. My legs became jelly and overwhelming anxiety overpowered me.

The problem was, I couldn’t walk away from the edge like I could on a skyscraper. There was nothing I could do but accept that this is existence, whether I liked it or not.

I felt 'butterflies' for months

It felt like I was on a roller-coaster, constantly in free fall.

Like I could feel Earth hurtling through space. You know when you’re on a simulation ride and feel every drop? You forget it isn’t real.

It was similar to this. The realization of us orbiting the sun made my adrenaline pump. I would literally feel the need to hold onto whatever I was nearest to.

The worst part was not knowing when the ride would end. And we don’t know.

Is there an end? Where is it?

The anxiety eventually turned into depression

The anxiety died down, but these questions were still left unanswered. 

And knowing I couldn’t answer them gave me a great sense of hopelessness and worthlessness, more than I have ever had before.

I was empty. I had no motivation. Nothing mattered anymore and what I used to think was important to me was nothing more than a distraction.

I would hate that the universe exists, and that it has always existed.

I would worry about the universe existing before I was born and after I died, as if I was trying to take control of it.

The universe felt like a cage, and I was imprisoned more than a part of it.

I later learned that these were examples of ‘Depersonalization’ and ‘Derealization’.

I felt like I was in a world full of zombies

It wasn’t that I felt like a zombie. Quite the opposite.

I felt like I was the only one thinking rationally in a world full of zombies.

I would still go to work, reluctantly. Jealous, and confused, by anyone that looked content on my commute.

Business people on the phone, talking passionately about a temporary task in a temporary job in a temporary life.

Friends meeting in a bar, drinking as if they were oblivious to the bigger picture.

I saw negativity in everything. And I wondered why I was the only one that seemed to care about the bigger questions.

Where are we? How did we get here? Where are we going?

It isn't permanent.

For anyone going through this right now, know that it can go away. Sometimes on its own, but I needed help.

I found peace in my late teens, up until my mid twenties.

At the age of 26 I went through it all over again. It was like I had another great ‘awakening’.

Again, it subsided. I had years of peace up until my 32nd birthday in June 2021.

Just before my birthday, I was told to isolate with Covid.

I decided not to drink during this isolation period, as I would probably have a few drinks with friends over a few day-period.

I have always consumed a lot of alcohol. Probably to help ease the anxiety that has plagued me for so long.

I drank very little in isolation, in fact I think I just had a couple beers half way through the nine-day stretch. However the first day I was free to meet friends, I didn’t feel right. 

I felt depressed

The only other times I had felt this were back in 2006 and 2015. I started comparing these events and with that, my existential questions came flooding back.

I decided to have a couple beers on the evening, and immediately felt better.

It was only during a health check two days later that I worried about my drinking and decided to quit cold turkey.

The withdrawals were brutal.

Looking up how alcohol withdrawal can cause anxiety and depression made me realize where this was all coming from.

There was logic in how I was feeling, and this was very liberating

I no longer felt hopeless. Realizing that in life, we can make sense of things.

There is logic to be found and that just because something doesn’t make sense to us, doesn’t mean it’s scary. It just means we have to work towards the answer.

This has helped me live with the anxiety and depression and stick to sobriety.

Sure enough, as the weeks went by the symptoms started to reduce. I was eating more and motivation came back. Music sounded great and I was sociable again.

My anxiety caused existential questions, not the other way around

Anxiety was causing me to question things obsessively. 

Understanding that anxiety was causing my current existential crisis gave me a huge amount of relief.

Before this, I felt that my constant questions were manifesting on their own. And that I was anxious because I couldn’t answer them.

Now, it seems that going sober was was causing my body to adjust to a new normal. It was not used to being starved of alcohol. My brain didn’t like it, hence the anxiety.

It took me a while to realize this.

I still question things regularly. But without so much anxiety.

It isn’t crippling worry. I don’t become depressed with it either.

I can sit down with these thoughts and they don’t overpower me. I don’t lose motivation to do other things in my day and still have a passion for life.

I have noticed that caffeine also played a huge role in anxiety and OCD symptoms and compulsions.

The less alcohol, sugar and caffeine I have, the better my quality of life. The better my sleep and the better my brain function.

It is not a cure, but it is a huge improvement.

Existential OCD is terrifying, but it does get better in time

Know that it can pass. With the help of specialists and also a change in diet, I have seen a substantial improvement in my life.

There would be times when I would be too scared to even type this post in case it triggers my fears. I am now typing this with music in the background and a smile on my face.

I remember when I would call the Samaritans on my break at work. I then visited them after work before getting a taxi straight to the hospital.

I never thought those fears would go away due to the nature of them. Existential OCD felt like a scary awakening more than anything.

But it wasn’t an awakening. It was more a defence mechanism. I learned new terms, like depersonalization and derealization, that these thoughts are normal, and that I am not alone.

A response to anxiety that was triggered by my poor health choices, along with OCD.

By finding the source, we can overcome anything.

This is part-one of a personal account on existential anxiety. Part-two looks at a fear of eternity and infinity, and can be read here.