Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness characterized by repeated, unwanted thoughts and fears, often resulting in repetitive and ritualistic behavior to avoid or control these thoughts or fears.
There are different subtypes of OCD, each based on the nature of the symptoms a person experiences. Religious OCD is one example of how the disorder can manifest, and for those impacted, its symptoms can be upsetting, challenging to manage, and significant enough to affect daily life.
What Are The Types Of OCD?
There are several forms OCD may take. Each type of OCD is often associated with specific underlying fears, including but not limited to contamination, harm, or a loss of control. Below are common manifestations of OCD, along with compulsions and obsessions that can accompany them.
Harm Obsessions With Checking Compulsions
Harm obsessions often involve intense thoughts related to harming oneself or others. This type of OCD may be accompanied by compulsive rituals that involve checking behaviors. Checking gives a person a sense of control and reassurance. However, relief is often short-lived. As a result, the cyclical pattern of fear, response to fear, and compulsive behavior can seem to take over an individual’s life.
For example, people with harm-related obsessions and checking compulsions might believe they accidentally harmed their partner in their sleep. As a result, they may perform checking compulsions by checking that their partner is safe and going through their kitchen to ensure no dangerous substances or items have been messed with. They may further ask their partner if they slept well and feel safe, as asking for reassurance is another form of a checking compulsion.
Symmetry Obsessions And Organization Compulsions
People with symmetry obsessions may experience a strong urge to arrange and rearrange objects. They may put a lot of effort into keeping things “in order,” whatever that standard means to them. Symmetry obsessions may involve repeatedly reorganizing books from tallest to shortest, ensuring pens line up evenly on a desk, or hanging shirts according to type and color in a closet. Often, these compulsions are rooted in a fear that something may go wrong if the organization is messed with. For this reason, they may react with extremes if someone changes the order of their organization or tries to control the process for them.
Contamination Obsessions With Cleaning Or Washing Compulsions
A person with contamination OCD may focus on discomfort associated with contamination. Those who experience this type of OCD may believe the fear of experiencing disgust is more distressing than the results of contamination, such as getting sick, though specifics can vary. They may wash their hands constantly or clean excessively. Some of these behaviors may be repeated for hours.
What Is Religious OCD, And What Makes It Different?
Religious OCD, often called scrupulosity, is not a separate obsessive-compulsive diagnosis. Instead, it is a specific manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder that often causes a person to obsess over spiritual and religion-related fears. These fears may prompt compulsions to prevent or control situations.
For example, if a person with religious OCD fears going to hell, they may pray constantly to “become worthy of salvation.” While religion is a source of comfort for many people, those who experience religious OCD often experience fear and overwhelming emotional pain related to their perceived religious shortcomings.
Like other forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the cause of religious OCD is not entirely understood. An imbalance of chemical messengers in the brain may contribute to its development. Genetic and environmental factors may contribute, as well.
Symptoms Of Religious OCD
People with religious OCD often experience persistent negative thoughts about their own spirituality. These thoughts may be so strong that they can interfere with the person’s daily functioning. These individuals may struggle to ignore these thoughts and think about them constantly throughout the day.
Although scrupulosity may appear different from other manifestations of obsessive-compulsive disorder at first, people who experience religious OCD experience the same obsessive-compulsive cycles as people with other forms of OCD.
Obsessive thoughts associated with religious OCD often manifest with the affected person asking “What if” questions. For example, “What if God is real and I go to hell because I didn’t believe it?” or “What if I accidentally commit adultery by thinking of someone else?” Inciting events for scrupulosity can be an image, thought, place, person, or feeling.
Anything that causes an obsession can cause a desire for obsessive or compulsive behavior. For instance, seeing a person give an extensive offering could cause the person with religious OCD to worry that they want to steal the money from the other person. In turn, they might perform a compulsion by donating significant amounts of money that are out of their budget and put them in financial disarray.
Religious OCD And Morals
Individuals who experience religious OCD or scrupulosity generally have strict standards of moral, ethical, and religious perfection. They may believe they are condemned by what others consider basic standards or guidelines.
In addition to feeling extreme guilt for “unholy” or “unclean” thoughts and behaviors, a person with religious OCD might often experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. A person with religious OCD may experience an overwhelming urge to engage in compulsive behavior that they believe could lead to forgiveness or restore positive religious standing.
Some examples of religious obsessions include:
- Fear of going to hell
- Fear of committing immoral or sinful behavior
- Fear of being unclean or spiritually contaminated
- Fear of not having enough faith
- Fear of being possessed
- Fear of other people in their religion “finding out” that they are “imperfect,” “unholy,” or “unclean”
- Fear of having “sinned” without knowing
Compulsions related to different types of OCD, including religious OCD, are typically categorized as avoidance behaviors, reassurance-seeking behaviors, mental compulsions, or overt-behavioral compulsions.
Examples of religious compulsions include:
- Seeking constant approval or reassurance from religious leaders or authority figures
- Going to religious or church services more than what is typically scheduled in a person’s religion
- Engaging in excessive or repeated prayer or religious rituals
- Performing extreme acts of self-sacrifice or denying oneself the benefit of pleasure or joy
What Religion Do People With Religious OCD Practice?
Religious OCD is not specific to any one religion. People of various religious backgrounds can experience religious OCD. It may be more likely to develop in those who belong to stricter religious groups. However, because the root of this disorder is the mind, it has not been proven that one religion is more likely to cause OCD than another.
Can Religious OCD Be Treated?
Treatment for religious OCD is available and often effective. It may involve several modalities of psychotherapy, which may be focused on helping the person manage anxiety without undermining their quality of life. Below are a few treatment options often used for OCD.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often recommended in treating anxiety, OCD, and many other mental health disorders. It is focused on helping people detect, understand, and divert negative thoughts.
In cognitive restructuring therapy, individuals are taught how to effectively challenge the accuracy of their unwanted thoughts and behaviors. Cognitive restructuring focuses on teaching healthy ways to identify and address obsessions and compulsions while preserving one’s faith.
Exposure And Response Prevention Therapy (ERP)
With exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), a person is intentionally exposed to an anxiety-producing thought or situation that may incite an OCD episode. When exposure occurs, individuals purposefully avoid compulsive behavior and track their anxiety levels.
Exposure therapy can be difficult, as it may require the affected individual to partake in activities they believe are sacrilegious. In the long term, however, exposure and responsive prevention therapy can help a person reduce the occurrence of unwanted compulsions and begin to practice faith healthily without fear or shame. In addition, studies show that ERP is one of the most effective treatments for OCD, often leading to symptom remission.
Alternative Treatment Options
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of religious OCD, alternative forms of treatment are available. For some, meeting someone face-to-face can seem frightening or unsafe. If you want to talk to someone but aren’t comfortable meeting with a counselor or therapist in person, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be beneficial.
Online therapy allows clients to pick a scheduled time with their therapist that fits their schedule. In addition, clients can meet from home and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with their therapist.
In addition to being convenient and approachable, online therapy can also be effective. Research suggests that online treatment options can be as helpful as in-person therapy for treating symptoms of mental illnesses. One literature review examining the efficacy of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) found that internet-based treatment could be as successful at decreasing symptoms of anxiety, depression, panic disorder, PTSD, and other conditions.
How do I get over religious OCD?
In general, religious OCD is managed using the same kinds of methods as other forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Current evidence suggests that the most effective way to treat OCD may be a combination of psychotherapy and medication. This usually involves selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) alongside exposure and response prevention (ERP), a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
That said, it may be helpful for people with strong religious beliefs to integrate them into their recovery process. Working with a therapist who is knowledgeable about your beliefs might be easier than taking a purely secular approach to treatment. It might also be helpful to consult with clergy constituents who can offer guidance about the difference between typical religious practice and compulsive behaviors.
Some studies suggest that mindfulness meditation can also assist with OCD treatment. The practice of paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judgment could relieve some of the guilt and shame often associated with scrupulosity.
What are OCD religious subjects?
People with religious OCD may feel deep obsessions about subjects related to their faith. Common examples include:
- Worrying you’ve committed a sin
- Excessive concerns about ritual impurity or contamination
- Wondering if you performed a prayer or religious ceremony wrong
- Obsessively studying religious texts
- Guilt over immoral urges or blasphemous thoughts
- Fear that you’ve misunderstood your religion
- Wondering constantly what God or other divine powers expect from you
- Worries about accidentally breaking a commandment
- Inability to stop thinking about death or the afterlife
- Being overly concerned that you might be unable to control your desires
- Thinking you aren’t attending religious services enough
Some of the above might sound like understandable concerns to a person of faith. However, in a person with scrupulosity, these obsessions and fears can go far beyond the religious practices normally expected of believers.
What triggers religious OCD?
While most psychologists believe obsessive-compulsive disorder is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors (like most mental disorders), studies suggest that stressful life events often trigger the initial onset of this condition.
A person’s beliefs may influence how their OCD manifests. While religious faith does not necessarily increase the risk of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it might increase the chances of someone’s OCD taking a religious form. Their feelings of worry and guilt might be filtered through their beliefs.
Does God forgive OCD thoughts?
Many people with religious OCD feel deep concern that they will offend God (or whatever divine power they believe in) with impure or immoral thoughts. They may be afraid that they will commit a sin in their minds or hearts that can’t be forgiven.
While none of us can say for certain how a divine being might look at a person’s behavior, most religious leaders and thinkers agree that purely mental acts can’t constitute unforgivable wrongdoing. Many people regarded as saints within particular religious traditions have pointed out that scrupulosity can come from a mistaken understanding of sin or evil.
Can OCD cause evil thoughts?
Sometimes, the ideas or thoughts that cause the most guilt in scrupulous people can actually be OCD symptoms. Obsessive-compulsive disorder can cause intrusive thoughts about things that are horrific, disgusting, or morally repugnant. In people with religious OCD, intrusive thoughts are often ideas that violate or threaten their beliefs. This could include things like:
- Critical or hateful thoughts about God
- Imagining defiling religious objects
- Thoughts about committing sins
- Distorted, mocking versions of prayers
- Taboo thoughts interrupting prayers
The presence of these thoughts in religious OCD usually doesn’t mean that you secretly believe or desire the things you’re thinking about. In fact, it’s often an indication of the great personal importance you place on right and wrong. Intrusive thoughts in OCD often take the form of the things you’re most worried about. So if they focus on violating your moral beliefs, it can be a sign of how much you care about doing the right thing.
Is religious OCD curable?
Like other forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, religious OCD or scrupulosity can often be treated with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Though the treatment prognosis used to be very poor, modern methods for treating OCD are highly effective and usually lead to significant reductions in symptoms.
Will a person with religious OCD be completely “cured” by treatment? That may depend on your perspective. Cognitive behavior therapy, the standard form of psychotherapy for this condition, often focuses more on helping people learn better ways of reacting to and dealing with their tendencies toward obsessive thoughts. These skills may need to be practiced throughout a person’s life, and some individuals may have temporary relapses.
However, people who complete treatment for scrupulosity usually report substantial relief from their debilitating fears, obsessions, and compulsions. The vast majority still retain their religious faith, but their beliefs are a source of joy and meaning rather than shame, guilt, and fear.
Is religious OCD a mental illness?
Religious OCD can be considered a mental health disorder due to the extreme distress and disruption of everyday life that it can bring about. Though the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM-V) does not list scrupulosity as a distinct mental illness, obsessions about religion can easily fit the diagnostic criteria for OCD. Most mental health professionals recognize religious OCD as a common form of this condition.
How to deal with religious anxiety?
Several kinds of strategies may help in relieving your anxiety about religion. Some of the techniques that can help with ordinary worries and doubts may help even when the subject of your fears is your faith. For example, getting healthy amounts of sleep, nutrition, and physical exercise may help your overall mental resilience. Practicing meditation and self-compassion could also reduce your level of stress and worry.
You might also find it helpful to draw on the wisdom of your religious practice to help you reframe your persistent worries. Many faith traditions include concepts that may help believers decrease their anxiety. For example:
- Christians may feel reassured by Jesus’s teachings on God’s unconditional love and forgiveness
- Jewish people could take comfort from Torah verses emphasizing the mercy of God
- Muslims might reflect on the fact that Islamic prayers call Allah “the Compassionate, the Merciful”
- Buddhists could recall the Buddha’s teaching that even the striving for enlightenment and perfection must be given up
Another potentially helpful way to address religious anxiety is to simply accept it. While this may sound like a paradox, psychological research suggests that attempting to fight, suppress, or avoid anxious feelings often makes them worse. Acknowledging that you’re feeling anxious about your religion, without immediately looking for a way to “fix” it, might allow the feeling to dissipate.
What is religious trauma?
Religious trauma usually refers to distorted and psychologically harmful thoughts, beliefs, and emotions resulting from experiences within a person’s religious community. Though this term is not currently included in the DSM-V, the phenomenon is recognized by many researchers and treatment professionals.
Religious trauma can involve things like:
- Deep, persistent shame
- A belief that God hates you or that you’re unworthy of God’s love
- Extreme anxiety at the thought of religious worship
- Overwhelming fear of divine punishment
- A belief that you don’t deserve happiness
- Constant worries about being harmed by demons or other spiritual forces
Religious trauma may lead to some of the same negative mental health effects as other forms of trauma, such as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It might also make an individual more likely to develop religious OCD.
How do I know if I have religious trauma?
Recognizing religious trauma may require paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and behavior, particularly those relating to faith. For example:
- Do you experience panic attacks when attending religious services or discussing religious topics?
- Is it hard for you to think of God or other divine beings as loving, merciful, or kind?
- Do you tend to think of yourself as dirty or evil no matter what you do?
- Does thinking about religion consistently bring about feelings of shame, fear, or despair?
- Have you had thoughts of suicide or self-harm due to experiences like those described above?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, it’s possible you’ve experienced religious trauma. It’s difficult to say for certain because there is currently no accepted diagnostic standard. Still, understanding the role that harmful religious beliefs have played in shaping your negative self-beliefs might help you recover.
There’s help available for those experiencing suicidal impulses. You can connect with the National Suicide Lifeline for advice and help from trained volunteers. They can be reached online or by dialing 988 any hour of the day or night.
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