Understanding And Coping With Religious OCD

Obsessions, compulsions, and neutralizing rituals are three dominant characteristics of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Obsessive thoughts are intrusive, unwanted, persistent, and repetitive. Compulsions are ritualized behaviors that are performed automatically or without conscious thought. Neutralizing rituals include avoiding situations that trigger anxiety or performing them excessively to reduce the anxiety’s intensity.

Religious obsessions or compulsions are often associated with religious beliefs and practices. When you have religious OCD, you may not necessarily feel compelled to perform certain rituals or act out your fears to relieve them. This factor makes it different from other subtypes. Up to 33%¹ of people with OCD experience religious obsessions and compulsions. 

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What is religious OCD?

When you have religious OCD, you may have a fixation on your religion. Religious obsessions are a common problem and may involve any faith, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism. They are also called scrupulosity and can range from mild thoughts about God to extreme feelings of anxiety or fear. 

When suffering from religious OCD, you may experience intense anxiety after performing a ritualistic action. You may constantly think your deeds are immoral or go against accepted behavior. However, you may not necessarily be aware of the need to repeat this behavior. Negative feelings associated with religion and God often trigger this compulsion. 

People afflicted with this disorder obsess over certain religious rituals, taking extreme measures to ensure that they perform them perfectly. They may even commit suicide if they don’t complete their routines perfectly. You may try to cope with this OCD subtype by praying, reading religious books, attending church, or even going on pilgrimages.

Causes of religious OCD

There is no single cause for religious OCD. However, some factors that increase risk include:

  • Being raised in a religious environment

  • Having had trouble with authority figures or parents

  • Experiencing trauma early in life

  • Having anxiety disorders

Symptoms of religious OCD

People with religious OCD often feel guilty if they do not follow their beliefs and or the rules of their religion, even though these concerns are irrational. They may also spend hours thinking about what they could do differently or try to avoid situations where they might encounter other people.

Some researchers say religious obsessions can become mental illnesses, mainly if they cause distress or interfere with daily life. In some cases, religious beliefs or teachings trigger these symptoms. 

Talk to your doctor about treatment options if you suffer from these symptoms.

Obsessions related to religious OCD

Here are the most common obsessive thoughts related to religious OCD:

  • Asking yourself questions about your beliefs or how you could improve your faith

  • Asking yourself whether you are doing things correctly or if your actions are pleasing enough to God

  • Forgetting to pray about those close to you makes you worried

  • Scrutinizing your actions to see if they are religiously pure

  • Reading the scripture and wanting to follow it word for word

  • Fearing that your sins and omissions will cause you death

  • Thinking you are worshiping the devil when you do something wrong

Compulsions related to religious OCD

These are some of the compulsive actions people take when they have religious OCD:

  • Repeatedly cleansing yourself before praying or attending religious services

  • Reading the scripture and praying compulsively

  • Constantly seeking reassurance from those around you to know that you are doing the morally right thing

  • Repeatedly thinking unwanted thoughts about God, Jesus Christ, or other religious figures

  • Uncontrollably praying, reading religious texts, attending church services, or performing rituals

  • Feelings of dread after completing ritualistic behaviors

Treating religious OCD

If you suffer from religious OCD, you may experience intrusive thoughts about religion or God. These thoughts can cause anxiety and distress. These problems can become debilitating and interfere with daily functioning if left untreated. 

Here are some treatment options for religious OCD.

Exposure and response prevention therapy

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy can help you if you suffer from OCD. Suppose you feel you cannot control your thoughts and actions and often have intrusive thoughts that repeatedly lead you to perform certain religious cleansing rituals. In that case, ERP can help reduce your distress and anxiety.

ERP therapy² focuses on exposure to feared thoughts, objects, images, or situations and then learning not to perform the ritual you typically do to decrease your anxiety or fear. You learn how to cope with obsessions and compulsions through techniques like meditation, yoga, mindfulness, deep breathing, and relaxation exercises.

Here are some of the ERP techniques used for OCD.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing techniques help relax your body. As you breathe deeply, your stress levels decrease. By learning how to deepen your breaths, you can lower your heart rate, become less anxious, relax your muscles, slow your thought process, increase energy levels, and lessen feelings of panic.

Meditation

Meditation is a practice where you clear your mind of distractions and focus only on your breath. You may use a mantra, repeat words or phrases, count numbers, or follow your breath. 

Meditation helps you quiet your brain and calm yourself before performing tasks. When you finish meditating, you feel refreshed and recharged.

Yoga

Yoga teaches you to live life mindfully. You can reduce stress levels by doing simple yoga poses like downward-facing, side plank, and mountain poses. Yoga also teaches you to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard if you need rest.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state of being aware of what’s happening around you but without getting caught up in those thoughts. It trains your brain to focus on the present moment instead of reliving past events or worrying about future ones. 

You learn to be more patient and accept your religious OCD experiences through mindfulness. Mindfulness is also an essential part of acceptance and commitment therapy.

Acceptance and commitment therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that significantly reduces OCD symptoms. ACT works by identifying and challenging unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving at the root cause of your religious OCD. 

By changing these patterns, you can change unwanted thoughts and behaviors that arise from them.

The basic premise behind ACT is that if we can accept our unwanted thoughts and feelings without trying to get rid of them, they lose their power over us. Therefore, the first step in treatment involves being able to identify and name your obsessions and compulsions so that you have the opportunity to challenge them. This method allows you to regain control and mastery over your life.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating OCD. You may find that ACT best suits certain parts of your religious OCD while ERP best suits the others. However, any treatment requires a lot of work and dedication.

There is no fast fix. Instead, these therapies help you achieve gradual recovery, which is often best for lasting results. 

The lowdown

Religious OCD occurs when a person develops uncontrollable thoughts related to religion. These thoughts can lead to compulsions that you perform over and over again until you feel satisfied. This urge happens even though these actions do not make sense and may be harmful. 

Thoughts related to religious OCD can cause you to become highly anxious and preoccupied with religious issues. You may sometimes engage in repetitive behaviors intended to help alleviate the concerns. If left untreated, these thoughts can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and other mental health issues.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it possible to develop such an obsessive behavior toward religion?

Religion has always played a significant role in the lives of many human beings. Although some claim they don’t believe in it, many are still influenced by it if raised with religious beliefs. 

To be considered religious, a person must hold a belief system that encompasses their actions and thoughts. People around the world follow different faiths and religions. Most of them are peaceful and harmless. 

If you have religious obsessions and compulsions, you may not even realize what is happening. You might think your actions are typical; however, they can create much stress in your life.

Can religion cause religious OCD?

Religious beliefs, rituals, and practices often play a role in triggering OCD symptoms. For example, some individuals believe they cannot pray until they are entirely “pure,” as defined by their religion. Others may fear contamination from objects, places, or other people.

Religious leaders should support followers who struggle with religious OCD in such instances. Additionally, they should encourage them to seek professional care.

How to get help for religious OCD

If you suspect you have religious OCD, the best way to overcome it is to find a good doctor or therapist who can help you understand your condition. It would be best if you worked closely with them to develop healthy coping skills.

Several treatment options are available for OCD, including medication, mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavior therapy, and exposure and response prevention.

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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