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Obsessive Strange Thoughts About Life And Existentialism

Question:

I have a very serious problem that maybe you can explain. I have been having these ‘episodes’ where sometimes I forget where I am at and I have these obsessive strange thoughts about life and existentialism, usually it comes out of nowhere and I think about how weird it is that our language is compiled in to the words that we use. I think about how weird that is, and then I start to panic because I don’t understand what is happening to me. Like I will look at a word for example ‘question’ and I will obsess on how weird it looks and sounds when we communicate and read it in a sentence. I know it sounds bizarre, but it is really scaring me! I also am afraid to go to sleep at night because when I hit REM, I am half aware, and forget who I am or where I am at. I also ponder how strange life is and how it is definitely strange that we exist and are self aware. It is horrible and is freaking me out. I must say that I have been under the most stress that I have ever felt in my life for the past decade. I left the military because of this issue and after hearing stuff about the 2001 attacks that seemed like something out of a horror film. I take Prozac for depression, Xanax for anxiety (although my doctor is not nearly giving me enough) and have been on Seroquel before. (I stopped those, because I CANNOT stand the way they make me feel). If you can help it would be greatly appreciated because as we speak I am having immense trouble concentrating and am pondering why and how I came to be, and why our lives and looks are the way they are. I need to go to sleep, but I know what is coming. Please help if you can

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Answer:

Explanation is a funny thing. Understanding what is or might be happening is not something that is curative. It may not make you feel any better or change the experience you are having. However, it can be enormously calming to learn the nature of what is happening, or at least to know that what is happening has been seen before and is not lethal or freakish. So, keeping this in mind, I will offer an educated guess as to what might be happening for you (emphasis on the word “might”). If you want a definitive answer – in the form of a valid and actionable diagnosis – you should make an appointment with your psychiatrist so as to talk about these symptoms, if you have not done that already.

Here’s what comes to mind for me, however, reading what you’ve provided here. These thoughts may be something frightening but essentially normal and non-clinical in nature. Alternatively, they may be evidence of a mild dissociative condition, possibly related to the stressful conditions you’ve described, and possibly not. They could be part of an underlying anxiety disorder such as OCD. They could be related to some of the medications you are taking (and if you are taking any “recreational drugs” to their use). More far fetched, but not possible to rule out from this distance would be the possibility that these episodes represent some mild thought disorder in the psychotic spectrum, possibly related to your underlying depression. I’m not leaning towards the more severe possibilities based on what you’ve described, but they can’t be ruled out either based on this limited information.

One of the more likely possibilities to consider is that you’re essentially okay but just now coming to grips with the weird and fragile nature of human existence which is presently freaking you out. Life really is strange and fragile and improbable and odd. Many people don’t notice this, because they remain deeply embedded in our culture which encourages us to focus on mundane things such as are presented to us on television and on the grim reality of the need to provide for one’s family or to get ahead in a career or some variation on the same. Thoughtfulness is not encouraged, and neither is noticing the strangeness and arbitrariness of life; these things frighten people so they learn to not look. But some people do look at the strange, and think about that which is discouraged and frightening. They may be considered odd by their peers but this does not mean that they are mentally ill or wrong or inaccurate in their concerns. So – your fear may be an understandable reaction to real mysteries; less a sign of disorder, and more a sign of a different way to cope.

The concerning thing that doesn’t fit well with the picture I’ve drawn above is that you report forgetting who you are or where you are. In clinical terms you are reporting disorientation, and this part isn’t so common among the “normal” (non-disordered) population. A mild dissociative process may account for this sort of thing, however.

Dissociation is a mental phenomena that has to do with how attention and memory and emotions work. When you dissociate, what happens is that a part of your experience gets cut off from the part of you which is aware. Everyone dissociates to one degree or another – it’s a normal part of mental experience – but most people do it very mildly only, in the form of “spacing out” or daydreaming, or by intellectualizing when faced with a disturbing feeling. More severe dissociation is associated with amnesia or even multiple personality.

A mild form of dissociation, but one severe enough to be classified as a clinical diagnosis is known as depersonalization or alternatively derealization. In depersonalization dissociation, a person enters into a trance-like state where they feel alien to themselves; as though their body is not their own or has been altered in some fashion. When the experience is slightly different and what seems to have been altered is the world, rather than one’s body, it is called derealization. Though definitely disturbing, depersonalization and derealization are not really dangerous. They are typically transient stress responses, meaning that they are more likely to occur when someone is very stressed out and to be less of a problem after the stress subsides. Depersonalization and derealization can happen in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, or for some people, it’s just something that happens to them. It’s possible that your excursion into this existential line of thinking has occurred because of some mild dissociation process that has called your attention to the weirdness of things.

It is possible that your frightening thoughts are part of a larger diagnostic picture that resolves to be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. OCD is an anxiety disorder in which the primary symptom is obsessions: troubling and unwanted repetitious thoughts, often of an irrational nature but which share a fearful theme such as an over-concern with contamination, or a fear that a door has not been locked and a burglary will result. Compulsions are the behavioral consequences of obsessions. They are the behaviors people find themselves forced to act out so as to diminish the urgency of the obsessions. So – if a person has an obsession about burglary, they may find themselves actually checking locks.

It is not necessary to have compulsions if you have OCD; there is a “Pure O” form which has been discussed of late characterized by obsessions only. Your troubling thoughts may have an obsessional character. If this is the case, you will be best served talking about these obsessions with your psychiatrist, and also with a behavioral therapist, both of whom can help you, with medications and with therapy respectively, to work on ways to reduce the urgency of obsessions.

A forth possibility is that what you are describing is the leading edge of a thought disorder or psychotic process. Psychosis is commonly thought of as something that is exclusive to schizophrenia, but this is not the case. Some severely depressed patients will become severely psychotic at times, and bipolar illness is associated with a form of psychosis as well which is known as mania. What you’ve described doesn’t sound like this is the case, but only a psychiatrist who follows you locally will be in a position to really make a definitive statement one way or another. If it is the case that you are becoming susceptible to a psychotic process, typically this needs to be addressed with medication.

The key thing I hope to emphasize in my response is that though your thoughts are frightening you, they are not necessarily dangerous thoughts, and I do not believe they sound weird or unusual. I think if you start talking about your thoughts with thoughtful non-superficial people who’ve lived for a while, they will probably tell you that they have had occasion to think similar thoughts. You may want to read books that address some of your concerns to help you get a sense of how normal they are – not normal really – they are uncommon, but they are not odd. For instance, existential philosophy books, or books on the nature of language. In my experience, the usual reaction is to experience a little while of panic after experiencing something that gets at the core of life – such as really understanding that you are going to die, or suddenly realizing that words are in part arbitrary. You get over your fear as the newness of these thoughts passes. If you find that you aren’t getting over the weirdness of these thoughts, or if you are thinking that my descriptions of dissociation seem to fit you well, then my recommendation would be to make an appointment with a psychotherapist so that you can talk about this stuff and get to the bottom of it better. Good luck.

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