Maybe you grew up in a religious family. Maybe you were taught that certain behaviors were frowned upon or not allowed, while other behaviors were praised. Maybe you’re still religious or you follow moral guidelines based on a sense of religious duty. But when does this religious duty cross the line into harmful feelings of guilt and shame?
Those with religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) know this sense of guilt and shame all too well. These individuals “suffer from obsessive religious doubts and fears, unwanted blasphemous thoughts and images, as well as compulsive religious rituals, reassurance seeking, and avoidance” (Rosen, 2014). Where is the line drawn between simply being a devoutly religious person and having religious OCD?
Religious OCD is often known as scrupulosity, which comes from the late Middle English word “scruple,” meaning “a moral misgiving or pang of conscience” (Ehmke). For many people, religion provides a sense of comfort and peace. They often enjoy adhering to a sense of religious duty because they feel a sense of accomplishment and find solace in the idea that, so long as they abide by religious rules, they will be protected and cared for by their god(s). However, for those with religious OCD, their sense of religious duty directly stems from a deep sense of anxiety and intense fear of punishment over straying from religious or moral ideals.
The reason behind one’s religious duty is essential in understanding whether or not a person may have religious OCD. People with scrupulosity have unpleasant, irrational, and persistent thoughts about not being devout or moral enough, regardless of their actual piety (Krauth). Everyone who’s religious may have these doubts and worries from time to time. They may fear that they’re not devout enough, or that they’ve deviated too far from the moral guidelines of their religion. However, when this doubt and fear becomes so intense and pervasive that it becomes an obsession, one may be crossing the line from a typical sense of religious duty into religious OCD. In order to alleviate the anxiety caused by this obsession, people may perform compulsions such as praying, seeking penance, or repeating a religious phrase or act.
Religious OCD can be difficult to treat because the fears and anxieties associated with it are virtually impossible to address. For example, “If you believe you’ll go to Hell for thinking about sex with the Virgin Mary during Mass or not saying your prayers ‘perfectly,’ only death will provide you with the evidence” (Krauth). Therefore, it can be challenging to reassure someone that they will not be punished for these simple acts, especially since religion isn’t scientific and the potential consequences can’t be disproved.
This form of OCD is a prime example of why OCD can be so pervasive and difficult to deal with. If one’s obsessions present themselves in completely intangible ways, such as worrying that they’re a bad person because they don’t complete certain tasks, how can someone get rid of that thought? The intense amount of anxiety caused by the idea of perfect morality is somewhat relieved by certain compulsions, but this relief is short lived. Therefore, the obsessions and compulsions continue until the individual learns to dissociate the two and address the emotions behind the obsessions, often with the help of a professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy is often utilized to treat OCD. It encourages the individual to become more self-aware of their own negative thought patterns, in order to deal with them in a more effective and rational manner (Mayo Clinic, 2019). Once patients are able to better manage and overcome their feelings of guilt and fear, their obsessive thinking and compulsions will lessen.
Posted by Dr. Andrew Rosen, Rosen, D. A., Afzal, A., Aqeel, davis, D., Source, P. C. F., … Pascucci, J. (2014, July 14). What is Religious OCD? Retrieved from https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/what-is-religious-ocd/.
Ehmke, R., & Child Mind Institute. (n.d.). Understanding Religious OCD. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/understanding-religious-ocd/.
Scrupulosity: Blackmailed by OCD in the Name of God. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://beyondocd.org/expert-perspectives/articles/scrupulosity-blackmailed-by-ocd-in-the-name-of-god.
Cognitive behavioral therapy. (2019, March 16). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/about/pac-20384610.