Nihilistic delusions are persistent beliefs that a subject does not exist or is dead. Like other delusions, these beliefs endure even when patients are presented with information that contradicts them, such as a recognition from a third party that the patient is alive and appears to exist. This psychological phenomenon was first described in the 19th century by Jules Cotard, a French researcher, and is sometimes known as a Cotard delusion in reference to this. It can be observed in patients with certain mental health conditions as well as people with brain injuries.
Patients with nihilistic delusions may express them in several different ways. Some patients simply believe they themselves do not exist, and in some cases, have never existed. They do not recognize information that invalidates this claim and may think they are invisible or inaudible to the people around them. Others think they are dead, and some experience vivid hallucinations to accompany the delusion, believing they are rotting corpses, for example, or thinking that limbs are missing.
If a care provider questions the patient, he or she may often reveal no personal information. Patients who think they do not exist believe they have no names, ages, or parents, for example. They may not recall anything from their past. Those who believe they are dead may tell care providers how they died and could offer information about their lives.
Cotard believed that nihilistic delusions were the result of “negativism.” The actual psychology behind them may be somewhat more complex. Patients with conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder can develop a feeling of disconnect from the world around them. This may manifest in the form of delusions which seem quite logical to the patient, even if they appear bizarre to bystanders. Thus, a patient may develop nihilistic delusions after being ignored or silenced, in an attempt to explain those experiences.
In the case of brain injuries, the delusions can be the result of damage to parts of the brain involved in self perception. Such patients can be challenging to treat, as they may not respond to therapy and medications in the same way that those who have mental illnesses do, because the problems with the brain are very different. After an injury, the brain can gradually remap connections and build new associations, but this could take time. During this process, the patient may need supportive care to perform tasks of daily living and slowly erode these delusions.
What Is Nihilism in Psychology?
In psychology, nihilism is a fundamental belief system based on disbelief. Patients who have nihilistic tendencies are also known to suffer from psychological disturbances. Once a nihilistic belief system is in place, patients also experience delusions that support “evidence” of non-existence.
Foundations in Philosophy
Belief in non-existence can take many different forms. It can sometimes be based on the philosophical underpinnings of nihilism as established by prominent philosophers such as Camus and Kierkegaard. The belief that the world does not exist as it appears is a common nihilistic and philosophical belief.
When second-year students spend hours pondering existence and debating whether anything is confirmed, the cliche basis forms continuing nihilism psychology and philosophy in the academic realm. As collegiate scholars enroll in more advanced philosophical courses, nihilism enters the conversation. Philosophical nihilism is not typically accompanied by delusions or treatment; instead, it is part of an expected ongoing academic conversation.
Foundations in Psychology
Belief in non-existence in psychology is more problematic. Patients may believe that the world does not exist, they do not exist or are deceased, parts of the body or mind are missing or have been taken, or that people and places have ceased to exist. Despite concrete evidence that presents alternate information, such as the left leg being visually present when the patient suggests the left leg was previously amputated, the false belief holds firm.
The false beliefs or delusions that accompany nihilism primarily come as a result of profound unrest and trauma. Patients may create an alternate reality wherein people, places, and things no longer exist as they once did because they have had an intensive disconnect or break with reality. Psychological nihilism is also linked to:
- Existential crises
- Persistent fear
- Brain injuries
- Personality disorders
How Can You Tell if You Suffer From Nihilistic Delusions?
Nihilistic delusions have been described as the ultimate disconnect from the self and the world around you. If you are, in fact, experiencing irregular or concerning events in your life, you might be having delusions. As a result of experiencing delusions, it may be challenging to separate real life from one created around unrest or trauma in your life. When determining whether or not you suffer from nihilistic delusions, seeking professional medical help is the best option.
Delusions as a Symptom
If you have never been diagnosed with any mental illness or underlying condition, knowing when or how to seek help might be confusing. First, identifying delusions as a symptom is a starting point. However, other conditions aside from nihilism also have delusions as symptoms. If you communicate to your support system or health care professional that you are experiencing thoughts of disbelief in your assumed reality, you will likely get the help you need.
Cotard delusion is a condition wherein the patient believes that their limbs or other body parts are dead or dying. Cotard delusions are often specific to extremities, referred to as the walking corpse syndrome, but patients might also believe their souls have gone missing.
Capgras is a psychological condition wherein the patient believes that someone they know, often a loved one, has been replaced with an imposter. Nihilistic delusions appear as Capgras delusions when shadowy figures or unnamed places replace reality in a person’s life. Patients might also experience alternate fantasies of imposter homes, pets, lives, and realities.
Other delusions that center on the disbelief of existence include being dead, decomposing, vaporizing, total annihilation, being only a shell of their former self with no internal organs or operation, or being invisible because they or other people are ghosts.
Is Nihilism a Form of Depression?
Depression is a prevalent and severe medical condition that negatively impacts your feelings, thoughts, and actions. While it is treatable, it causes deep sadness and profound disinterest that impacts daily life. Disinterest is the component of depression that fuels nihilism.
Parts of nihilism are founded on the idea that the stakes have to be lowered so far that neither the self, the body, or the environment can exist in such a way that they will ever be detrimental to the person anymore. Nothing is left to be interested in or harmed by after removing the element of existence.
Whether non-existence comes in the form of everything around the patient fading away or the patient themselves believing they are dead or nonexistent, it is typically a measure of protection through delusion. Nihilism is not a form of depression but a form of psychosis that can coexist alongside depression, complicating the conditions and making treatment and recovery more complex.