What is Religious OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted, intrusive thoughts and anxiety (obsessions) about something and the behaviors (compulsions) that people who suffer from the condition use to relieve the anxiety. This particular anxiety disorder represents a very serious condition that often grips the victim’s mind with fear and, in a very real way, controls their lives.

OCD is a broad disorder that encompasses many subgroups: in the case of religious OCD (also known as scrupulosity), the person is fixated on obsessions that are based in religion and/or religious beliefs, or around beliefs concerning morality. People who experience this form of OCD suffer from obsessive religious doubts and fears, unwanted blasphemous thoughts and images, as well as compulsive religious rituals, reassurance seeking, and avoidance.

People with religious OCD strongly believe in and fear punishment from a divine being or deity. Experts estimate that anywhere between 5% and 33% of people with OCD may experience scrupulosity and the number likely rises to between 50% and 60% in OCD sufferers who come from within very strict religious cultures. Even people who are not particularly religious can suffer from scrupulosity because they worry about being morally compromised or unintentionally offending others. A common thread throughout the spectrum is the linking of thoughts and actions: people with scrupulosity believe their thoughts are the same as actions, so they worry not just about what they have done, but also about what they have thought.

Examples of Religious OCD

Religious OCD can take many forms. A CNN news article tells the story of a Jewish woman who was so consumed with obsessions surrounding exposure to pork that she spent a large amount of time each day washing her hands and cleaning items that could even have remotely had the potential to come into contact with pork. An ABC News report discusses the problems of one Catholic woman who was faced with saying hundreds of prayers a day to obtain forgiveness for her self-perceived wrongdoings. The same article recounts a story about a man who eventually stopped eating and speaking in an attempt to please God by making sacrifices similar to those made by certain biblical figures. Even pillars of religious faiths may have been victims of scrupulosity: it has been suggested that both Martin Luther and St. Ignatius of Loyola may have exhibited religious obsessions.

Symptoms of Religious OCD

Scrupulosity rituals can include such behaviors as:

  • Compulsively praying, which can involve restarting the prayer if you get distracted while saying it and/or repeating it if you didn’t feel you were concentrating properly on the prayer or on the meaning of the prayer
  • Asking others if you are behaving correctly or if you “did the right thing”or analyzing your behavior throughout the day to be sure you are acting “appropriately”
  • Reading or studying religious writings, books, and texts excessively
  • Questioning your motives in numerous situations
  • Excessively apologizing to a deity (God, Allah, etc) and seeking forgiveness for your behavior

Treatment for Religious OCD

As with other forms of obsessive compulsive disorder, treatment for religious OCD involves cognitive behavior therapy. In some cases, medicines are combined with this type of exposure and response therapy. A patient will not be asked to give up his religion when undergoing therapy, instead he are given ways to face his triggers and live within his faith and religious traditions. Additionally, those patients who may not be able to travel to a therapists’office may be able to receive treatment over the phone or on a computer-based application such as Skype or FaceTime.

Have Questions? Need Help?

To get more information and help for scrupulosity and religious OCD, please contact Dr. Andrew Rosen and The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida at 561-496-1094 or email Dr. Rosen and The Center today.

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