For the Sin-Obsessed, a Slip Into a Disorder Called “Scrupulosity” June 3, 2014

For the Sin-Obsessed, a Slip Into a Disorder Called “Scrupulosity”

When her bat mitzvah approached, Jennifer Traig‘s handwashing compulsion began.

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.


… she was so worried about being exposed to pork fumes that she cleaned her shoes and barrettes in a washing machine.

According to a CNN story about religion-influenced obsessive-compulsive disorder, Traig, like many OCD sufferers,

“… tended to obsess about cleanliness. But because I was reading various Torah portions, I was obsessed with a biblical definition of cleanliness.”

Traig was worried she would be [divinely] punished if she didn’t practice her religion correctly. “I couldn’t have put my finger on what the punishment would be,” she said. “Just a sense of doom.”

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing the crew of seven, Traig felt partially responsible.

Among psychologists, Traig’s state of mind is 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.

Scrupulosity is pretty common:

Somewhere between 5% and 33% of OCD patients have religious obsessions.

That’s between 165,000 and 1,100,000 U.S. patients.

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.

That would explain a lot.

It’s not a new phenomenon:

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 wroteabout 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.

To be fair,

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.

More on the condition here and here.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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