Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, focuses on distressing concerns that assail the patient, causing them anguish, frustration, and disturbances to their daily functions. OCD can develop over a myriad of different themes, with religious OCD, or scrupulosity, noted for its emphasis on matters of faith and one’s belief system, particularly when it comes to religious practice and ceremonies. This hard-to-diagnose form of OCD is a concern for individuals across the globe, from different sects and cultures. So, what constitutes religious OCD and how does it normally appear? Read on to find out.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is defined through its two central aspects: obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions.
Obsessive thoughts are seen as intrusive, unwanted, and disturbing thought content. Such OCD-related thoughts can come in the form of upsetting visual imagery, as if one is seeing scenes from a movie. Another form could be troubling texts depicting a frightening occurrence. And a third manifestation could be auditory and include hearing an internal monologue about an agitating situation taking place.
Regardless of what form OCD-related obsessions take, they are always very disturbing to the individual facing them. OCD thoughts are typically experienced as nagging, unrelenting, and imposing topics that do not go away or allow the individual a moment of reprieve. Over time, these thoughts become time-consuming, exhausting, and severely frustrate those affected by them, often harming their ability to function in various social and personal life spheres.
Research has marked four overarching common themes for OCD-related obsessive thoughts:
Cleanliness: Considered the most common OCD-related obsession, this type of OCD is marked by constantly thinking about cleaning, washing, sterilizing, or bathing, out of a fear of contracting a debilitating or life-threatening ailment. Being overwhelmed with thoughts about cleanliness or fears of illness or contamination, is considered the most common OCD-related obsession. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), women are more likely than men to experience cleanliness-based OCD.
A possible complication with this type of OCD can arise during periods when one’s health is, in fact, acutely threatened by a fatal disease, such as during the coronavirus pandemic. During these times, an obsessive focus on good hygiene can raise conflicting concerns as it acts to protect one’s health and life, while triggering a mental health condition that may very well follow them long after COVID-19, or another concrete health concern, have passed.
Order: Also includes counting, symmetry, rearranging items, and “just right thinking.” Individuals facing this type of OCD are prone to agitation over perceived imperfections. Noticing when something is out of place, a messy personal space or piling up of laundry can bother them to such an extreme as to prevent them from relaxing, moving on to another topic or even sleeping when a chore is still left to be done.
Unlike obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, or OCPD, OCD-based obsessions of order typically make the individual themselves extremely upset, and causes them to view their condition as unwanted and disturbing. Someone with OCPD, on the other hand, may see their obsession with order to be a virtue, and consider those around them—who are often fully exasperated over this individual’s unending demand for neatness—to be lazy, for not willing to comply with their way of thinking.
Catastrophizing: This type of OCD causes the individual to ruminate over the possibility of a tragic accident, acts of violence committed by others, or a natural disaster befalling themselves or a loved one. Obsessing over whether an unanswered text means something terrible has happened to the recipient. Learning a close friend had been killed in a plane crash. Worrying over their shoelaces becoming undone, tripping, and breaking their leg as a result.
Catastrophizing OCD can lead the individual experiencing it to repeatedly check and recheck that they have safeguarded against some sort of major concern. As one example of this, someone with this type of OCD may find themselves returning home several times to reaffirm to themselves that they have, in fact, locked their door.
Taboo Thoughts: Individuals with OCD who obsess over an appalling action they themselves might commit are contending with OCD-related taboo thinking. This type of OCD often revolves around carrying out a violent act, disturbing sexual content, or actions that go against the individual’s faith and customs—the latter also referred to a religious OCD. According to the APA, men are more likely to develop taboo thoughts or symmetry-based OCD.
Whereas many cases of OCD begin with obsessive thoughts, eventually they may also develop a repetitive form of compulsive behavior. The actions themselves vary widely and are typically repetitive and ceremonial in nature.
OCD-related behavior can sometimes have a strong and rather intuitive connection to the individual’s OCD-related thought content. Constantly worrying about leaving the gas stove on (thought) can lead them, for instance, to repeatedly walk into the kitchen and touch the stove’s main switch to reaffirm it is shut off (behavior).
That said, it does not always “make sense,” in that it may seem to have been randomly selected, without any connection to the individual’s OCD-related thinking: someone who is persistently preoccupied with catching an airborne illness might find that turning the lights in their living room on and off a certain number of times helps alleviate them of their distress, even though they are not sure why this particular ritual is able to do so.
Initially, repeating their OCD-related behavior can assuage the unpleasant sensations that the individual’s OCD-related thoughts arise. Eventually though, these rituals become compulsory, so that the individual begins feeling stress if they do not repeat them. As a result, the very same actions that used to calm them down become part of their OCD, as the individual facing them becomes more overwhelmed by their condition.
Religious OCD takes the anxiety and distress that are thought to be at the root of OCD, and manifests them through themes of faith and religion. This can cause an individual to fear that God will strike them down if they do not follow certain rules and rituals practiced by their religion, or if they even think about committing an action that contradicts a stipulation of their faith.
Religious OCD obsessions can include:
Religious OCD compulsive behavior can include:
Religious OCD is seemingly a response to more common human adherence to religious doctrines: whereas most individuals with some kind of connection to religion may seek to follow the rules of their religion without much fear or guilt, those with religious OCD often feel terrified of the consequences of their religious transgressions.
Indeed, religious OCD has been found to have a higher prevalence in more devout countries, linking this condition to righteousness, and a central desire to follow a divine plan set out for them.
When considering whether an individual might have religious OCD, it is extremely important to account for their own culture and faith-based identity. Someone living within a highly orthodox community, for example, whose members are generally mindful of living according to the stipulations of their faith and who routinely take time out of their day to pray, would not be considered out of the ordinary for doing so. An individual exhibiting the same preoccupations and actions who finds them to be incredibly taxing, who is petrified of eternal damnation if they do not follow religious rules, and who goes to extreme lengths to uphold the utmost demands of their faith, well beyond most other members of their religion, might be dealing with this type of OCD. It is therefore crucial to find out how they were raised, what is expected of them in their present-day lives in terms of their religion, and how much stress they experience due to their adherence to their faith.