Note: The IOCDF is not affiliated with any religious groups and is not a faith-based organization.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a debilitating, life-paralyzing illness. It affects roughly one to two percent of the US population, according to the US National Institute of Mental Health. While it affects individuals, families, and communities alike, its impact on the individual with OCD is arguably the greatest. That is because OCD attacks whatever a person cares about most in life: their values.
Myths, jokes, and stigma about OCD are, unfortunately, very commonplace in the United States and beyond. Every year, the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) and its partners dedicate the second week of October to raising awareness globally, advocating for better mental-health public policies, and providing free educational resources about what OCD really is and is not. This OCD Awareness Week, October 8–14, 2023, is all about OCD Truths (#OCDTruths).
For some of us, our Truth concerns faith and OCD.
With OCD, an individual’s fears are based on their values, and so their values become skewed. Faith traditions are one value OCD frequently hijacks. Sometimes this internal conflict presents as moral and religious scrupulosity. However, other OCD subtypes can also disconnect someone from practicing their faith. As an example, an individual with OCD suffering from violent and sexual intrusive thoughts may withdraw from their faith community due to the immense guilt and shame they feel as a result of those unwanted intrusive thoughts.
Moreover, clergy and faith communities are frequently the first people individuals with OCD turn toward with problems and when obsessions torment them. Yet, the general public and clergy still do not fully comprehend OCD and other mental health conditions. For that reason, through the Faith and OCD Special Interest Group, we would like to help clergy, therapists, and the general public better understand what anxiety and OCD look like. This awareness will enable them to learn how to better help the person suffering with anxiety and OCD sit with the uncertainty and return to, for example, practicing their religion in a healthy way without ritualizing.
We have compiled a handful of our stories about the ways in which OCD has lied to us about our faith and/or moral traditions.
Here are our Truths.
I wish my faith leaders knew that, just because I have faith-related symptoms, my problem is not a spiritual problem but a mental health one. OCD lies and tells me that I must be certain of all the correct beliefs to be right with God. But I am learning in recovery that I can know God and engage with the mystery of my faith without having everything figured out. This is my OCD truth.
—Ashley Ryder, an individual with lived experience
OCD has led me to places of deep shame and not wanting to even take my OCD thoughts to God, thinking these thoughts were too terrible. However, I have learned that God is big enough to handle all of my doubts and thoughts. He does not bring me to places of shame; but He frees me from the shame of my OCD thoughts, and He has brought me to a deeper trust and faith as I have brought my thoughts to Him.
—Hannah Balow, an individual with lived experience
I wish my faith leader knew that scrupulosity is a part of OCD in general and that OCD is not just compulsive hand washing and a fear of germs. OCD tells me that God will get angry with, judge, and forsake me much more easily than anyone else. My truth is that not even OCD can come between me and God. He is a light in the darkness.
—Heather Palmatier, an individual with lived experience
It can absolutely be debilitating and oftentimes support is needed by those stronger in faith. OCD leads me to believe I am a horrible example of one who believes in Jesus, because I do not choose to do exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) every time I should. God does not condemn me when I give in to OCD. He is waiting for me to do ERP and is there to back me up with the courage I need to face the fear and go against it.
—Janeen, an individual with lived experience
OCD is not a moral failure. It is a neurobiological, clinical issue. OCD tells me the thoughts I have make me an immoral and evil person. It makes me believe if I do not perform a ritual then I have sinned. Consequently, OCD has encouraged me to actively seek out ways to punish myself. My truth is that OCD is a liar. My faith and morality are what I believe, not what I feel. I can have faith and morality and still be uncertain.
—Kimberly, an individual with lived experience
I wish pastors knew how differently their messages can be received in the ear of a scrupulous believer. My truth is God is bigger than OCD; He knows me best and is able to guide and speak to me despite OCD obstacles.
—Nicole Elizabeth, an individual with lived experience
I wish our pastors had a better understanding of anxiety disorders and OCD. I have repeatedly heard scripture used to encourage fear for salvation’s sake. But, for me, this is pure torture. I need to soak in the mercy of God, not the fear of torment and sin.
—Theresa Henriksen, an individual with lived experience
Finally, we have some Collective Truths to share about faith and treatment for moral and religious scrupulosity and, more generally, for OCD.
- Uncertainty and faith are inherently connected.
“Faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty.”
— Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
- Thoughts are just thoughts. You are not defined by your thoughts, but your actions. More importantly, thoughts and obsessions do not have any moral or religious value. Scrupulosity is not virtue. The virtue is letting yourself be yourself with imperfection, self-kindness, and forgiveness. Do not mistake OCD for your values!
“Every ritual resisted is an act of faith.” —Leslie Shapiro, behavior therapist at McLean Hospital’s OCD Institute
- Faith and OCD treatment can coexist. No one has to choose between recovering from OCD and their faith tradition. Just the opposite! OCD separates a person from God. But treating OCD effectively can bring one closer to their faith.
“You can have faith in the journey. You can have faith in treatment. You can have faith in the divine. And you can have faith in yourself.”
—Reverend Katie O’Dunne, at the 2023 Faith and OCD Conference