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Scrupulosity: Religious Obsessions and Compulsions

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What is Scrupulosity?

The term, scrupulosity, refers to a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that involves religious obsessions, but it is not a separate type of OCD like hoarding disroder or excoriation (skin-picking disorder). Scrupulous individuals have an overwhelming concern that certain things they do or say violate religious or moral doctrine. They spend an inordinate amount of time each day thinking and worrying about whether they've committed a sin or violated moral rules.

People who attend church on a regular basis, pray daily (even several times a day), and are very involved in their religious communities aren't typically sufferers of scrupulosity. Scrupulous behavior typically exceeds or disregards actual religious law and focuses entirely on a single inconsequential area of religious practice, often completely ignoring other areas. Those suffering from religious scrupulosity usually exhibit behavior that does not align with the rest of his or her faith community.

Scrupulosity Symptoms

Scrupulosity symptoms vary with the individual, but all have to with fear of sinning or breaking some sort of moral or religious rules and consequently suffering some sort of punishment. Common obsessions that occur with OCD scrupulosity include excessive preoccupations with:

  • Going to Hell
  • Moral behavior
  • Sinfulness
  • Blasphemy
  • Death
  • Purity
  • Loss of control over urges

In addition to preoccupation with religious or moral concerns, people suffering from scrupulosity perform mental or physical rituals in an attempt to make up for their perceived failings. Those who engage in only mental compulsions have the pure OCD form of scrupulosity.

Common physical compulsions include:

  • Excessive visits to church for confession
  • Unnecessary acts of self-sacrifice
  • Repetitive purifying and cleansing behaviors (i.e. hand washing, scrubbing floors)
  • Seeking constant reassurance from loved ones and pastors or priests of his or her goodness
  • Avoiding religious services or other events where they believe they may commit a public sin or moral error and cause something bad to happen

Common mental compulsions include:

  • Excessive prayer, often requiring that they repeat the prayer over again until they do it perfectly
  • Repeating verses or passages of scripture silently in the mind
  • Constantly making pacts with God
  • Repetitive thinking about sacred images or pictures

Scrupulosity affects individuals from a broad variety of religious backgrounds, not just those of one particular faith. Experts suspect many highly respected religious leaders have struggled with scrupulosity, including St. Veronica Giullani, St. Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and John Bunyan.

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next: OCD Diagnosis: OCD Criteria and Characteristics in DSM 5
~ all ocd articles

Last Updated: 03 February 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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