Glennon Doyle Describes Her Existential Anxiety, Sparking Conversations About A Unique Type Of OCD

Photo: Amy Paulson
what is existential ocd and does glennon doyle have it

Glennon Doyle is trending for asking a pretty basic question about anxiety in the first episode of her new podcast, "We Can Do Hard Things".

Doyle, an author, speaker, and the wife of soccer star Abby Wambach brought up an interesting observation during episode 1, featuring her sister, Amanda.

She then shared these observations on Twitter, where people reacted with their own big feelings and experiences with existential anxiety.

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What was Doyle's observation about anxiety?

“ISN’T ANXIETY JUST PAYING ATTENTION?” she asks. “AND ISN'T UN-ANXIETY JUST A BRILLIANT DENIAL OF THE UNTENABLE RIDICULOUS SITUATION WE ARE ALL IN DOWN HERE?” 

In the accompanying video, Doyle expands upon her question, diving into an anecdote about the anxiety she experiences while watching other people calmly order food and eat at restaurants around her. 

“And every once in a while I just want to stand up and be like, ‘Are you all aware that one day, perhaps not too soon, we are all going to die? And so is everyone that we love, all of them. For sure, 100%, and you are ordering onion soup.’ Like what? It blows my mind.” 

In the episode, Doyle shares how the problems in her life were all caused by a baseline level of anxiety and depression. “It was a little like being Eeyore and Tigger every day,” she said.

She goes on to say that sometimes she feels sad about absolutely everything. 

While most people experience existential thoughts like these from time to time, they often come and go without creating any lasting impressions. Others may have recurring thoughts that become a pattern and emerge as an obstacle in their lives.

For some people, this may be a sign of an actual condition called existential obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

While it is unlikely Glennon Doyle is dealing with existential OCD — we certainly are not doctors, nor would we ever try to diagnose anyone (and it’s impossible and unethical to diagnose someone with a mental health disorder without personal evaluation by a professional) — there are people with the condition who will relate to what she shared on her podcast.

“It feels very existential,” Doyle explains just before she makes the observation from her tweet. “My anxiety has nothing to do with what’s required of me. I know stress. My anxiety is completely different.” 

She says that, for her, people who don’t experience anxiety seem like they may be repressing aspects of the human experience, because they aren’t bothered by them. 

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What is existential OCD?

Considering the rarity of this particular mental illness, it’s worth providing background into what the condition actually is.

Existential OCD is a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder where an individual is unable to stop themselves from pondering complex questions of existence, to the point where they experience real harm. 

Questions like, “Why are we here?” “Is life just a simulation?” and “Someday the universe will just end altogether” are prime examples of the kinds of thoughts that people with this condition will have. Glennon Doyle’s anxiety over the fact that fellow restaurant goers don’t seem overly concerned with their impending deaths is another possible example. 

Existential OCD is related to derealization and depersonalization. These are conditions where one feels either detached from reality - in the case of depersonalization - or questions the very nature of reality - in the case of derealization. 

It’s also related to the phenomenon of intrusive thoughts. Most people have intrusive thoughts now and again, but these thoughts can become a problem when we begin to agree with them. 

Existential OCD can be thought of in terms of having intrusive thoughts about the nature of reality, self, and the universe, while experiencing a great deal of anxiety around the fact that there are no real answers to any questions that might arise around these topics. 

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Of course, we have no way of knowing whether Glennon Doyle's thoughts are truly interfering with her day-to-day life and happiness. She certainly is successful, with multiple best-selling books and a loving relationship that seems to energize and enlight both herself and her wife. 

Ultimately, it's clear that she is proactive about her well-being, so it's easy to trust that she knows what's up with her own mental health.

But, while everyone is thinking about existential anxiety, it's always good to talk more about how these types of anxieties can sometimes turn serious. After all, there are certainly other people who feel the way she does, and for them it may actually be debilitating. 

The conversation Doyle has started here may make someone feel less alone and offer them much-needed hope.

Becauase once you know you're not just quirky or even "weak" due to your anxiety symptoms, it can be easier to seek a diagnosis and treatment.

Was Glennon Doyle talking about existential OCD? 

By her own admission, Doyle has suffered from anxiety from an early age. She’s experienced trauma, eating disorders, and addiction in her life, and all of these things have the potential to lead to existential OCD. 

In episode 1 of We Can Do The Hard Things, Doyle goes on to explore what it feels like to have anxiety, what happens in the body when you have a panic attack, and discusses the idea of being neurotypical with her sister Amanda. All of these topics are incredibly important to bring to light, and it is wonderful that she is doing that in her podcast.

The podcast is set to continue to provide valuable insight and discussion on topics that affect many of us, like anxiety and trauma. Doyle is a leader in the space of empowerment and personal improvement, and going forward, it’s very likely that The Hard Things will continue to touch on informative, inspirational, and difficult topics. 

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Kevin Lankes, MFA, is an editor and author. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.