Religious OCD: 'I'm going to hell'

People with scrupulosity fear retribution for potentially doing the wrong thing.

Story highlights

  • OCD with religious obsessions is called scrupulosity
  • St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of Jesuits, and Martin Luther may have suffered from the condition
  • Exposure therapy helps patients face uncertainty
When she was 12, Jennifer Traig's hands were red and raw from washing them so much. She'd start scrubbing a half an hour before dinner; when she was done, she'd hold her hands up like a surgeon until her family sat down to eat.
Her handwashing compulsions began at the time she was studying for her Bat Mitzvah. She was so worried about being exposed to pork fumes that she cleaned her shoes and barrettes in a washing machine.
"Like a lot of people with OCD, I tended to obsess about cleanliness," said Traig, now 42. "But because I was reading various Torah portions, I was obsessed with a biblical definition of cleanliness."
Family dinners were awkward for Tina Fariss Barbour, too, as an adolescent. She would concentrate so hard on praying for forgiveness that if anyone tried to interrupt her thoughts, she wouldn't respond.
"First I had to get rid of all my sins, ask forgiveness, do it in the right way, and then I had to pray for protection," said Barbour, now 50. "Or, if something bad happened to my family, it would be my fault because I had not prayed good enough."
The women come from different faith backgrounds: Barbour is Methodist and Traig is Jewish. But as children they believed fervently that they needed to conduct their own rituals and prayers, or else disaster would befall their families.
Jennifer Traig was obsessed with cleanliness and avoiding pork fumes when she was a teenager.
Both women say they suffered from a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder known as scrupulosity. A fear of sin or punishment from deities characterizes this condition, said Jonathan Abramowitz, professor and associate chairman of the department of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, involves unwanted thoughts ("obsessions") and accompanying behaviors called compulsions that patients use to reduce anxiety. In scrupulosity, the obsessions have a religious or moral underpinning.
Patients with scrupulosity often describe how they believe their thoughts are morally equivalent to actions, Abramowitz said. Psychologists call this phenomenon "thought-action fusion."
"Scrupulosity literally means 'fearing sin where there is none,' " Abramowitz and colleague Ryan Jacoby wrote in a recent article.
How common is this condition?
Scrupulosity is an understudied subcategory of OCD. Attempts at characterizing how many people might have this disorder, from the 1990s and early 2000s, suggested that somewhere between 5% and 33% of OCD patients have religious obsessions. Scientists are not sure what causes OCD, but they believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors may be at play.
In societies where religiosity is more stringent, the numbers are higher: 50% of OCD patients in Saudi Arabia and 60% in Egypt said they had religious obsessions, according to studies from the early 1990s.
A small number of people with scrupulosity are not religious at all, and a fear of moral transgression or inadvertently offending others weighs on their conscience, Abramowitz said.
Psychologists do not believe that religion causes people to develop OCD. However, religion may influence whether someone with OCD experiences obsessions and compulsions related to religion, Abramowitz said.
A tendency to get anxious and difficulties with uncertainty may factor into the condition, Abramowitz said. And, he pointed out, the vast majority of religious people do not have OCD.
Many "scrupulous" people Abramowitz has met consider religion to be an important part of their lives, but they may avoid institutions such as churches, synagogues or mosques because it reminds them too much of their anxieties.
"They're walking around with this black cloud of 'I'm going to hell,' " Abramowitz said.
Such a cloud has been been present for centuries. The OCD History Website cites passages from the first century priest and essayist Plutarch and sixth century monk John Climacus that could be interpreted as descriptions of scrupulosity.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who died in 1556, appears to have suffered from the condition, said William Van Ornum, professor of psychology at Marist College. Ignatius wrote about his fears about stepping on something that looked like a cross.
There have also been suggestions that Martin Luther experienced scrupulous obsessions, Van Ornum said.
Robert Waters, a retired Lutheran minister, runs an online support network called The Scrupe Group. He said it has about 1,000 members, including Christians of several denominations, Jews, and at least one Hindu and one Muslim. Waters, who has suffered from scrupulosity personally, offers pastoral advice, but also tries to help people overcome their distrust of their own judgment.
"I think that's really a major part of it: To get to the point where people form their own consciences and don't rely on other people's," he said.
Did I do it right?
Scrupulosity often involves a lot of checking, Abramowitz said. Patients experience distress around the idea that they may have done something wrong or improper, so they may consult the Bible or religious authority figures often to see if they're doing things right. Consulting people and books isn't pathological, but in scrupulosity the behavior of checking is excessive compared to other religious people.
Barbour often confessed bad thoughts to her parents or religious leaders. Feelings of guilt followed her for years.
"OCD makes you think in black and white," she said. "There are no gray areas. Clean or not. Good or bad. There's nothing in between."
Tina Fariss Barbour learned she had OCD at age 26. She was obsessed with prayer.