The Bodily Compulsions of Religious OCD

Scrupulosity Video Post

Jaimie Eckert

Published on Nov 9, 2023; Updated on Jan 25, 2024

When I think about the bodily compulsions of religious OCD, I think back to the first moment I realized my own bodily movements might not be “normal.”

I was in a small group Bible study some years back, and the group leader was trying to make a comparison between the really vital questions of life versus the mundane, subconscious choices we make each day.

“Nobody here actually thinks about the order in which you tie your shoes, right?” He asked.

I should have seen the question for what it was: rhetorical. Rhetorical questions are not supposed to be answered. But I blurted it out before I could even process it.

“Sure, of course I think about the order I tie my shoes,” I said. “It’s always left first, then right.”

The group leader looked at me as if trying to figure out if I was joking or not. His facial expression informed me that I had already backed myself into a corner, and I suddenly wasn’t sure if it would be worse to divulge further details or to appear as though I was mocking his question. I plunged forward. “Everything is left first, then right. Left pant leg first, left shoe first, left sleeve first. Also when I shower, I have to dry the left side and then the right side.”

The group leader cleared his throat. “Well. Let me rephrase my question, then. Most of us don’t really think about the minor details of life, do we?”

The group members tittered and glanced at me sideways while I busied myself pretending to look for the book of Nahum. It was, perhaps, one of the first times I realized that there were elements of my bodily movements, motions, and ordering that might not be entirely “normal.”

Surprising Bodily Compulsions of Religious OCD

I don’t think my preference for ordering my left side before my right side has any sort of religious flavor to it. It is, if anything, more related to my experience with symmetry OCD, where things don’t “feel right” unless done in a certain order or in a certain way. But did you know that there are some interesting bodily compulsions in religious OCD? After working with hundreds of people with scrupulosity, I began hearing patterns emerge. People told me about the physical expressions of their anxieties, and I would realize someone else had just told me the same thing. Others who attend our online Zoom sessions would share about the physical movements and bodily compulsions from their own religious OCD and others would exclaim, “me, too!”

Here are some of the most common religious OCD bodily compulsions that I’ve heard:

  • Urge to achieve the “perfect” prayer posture
  • Urge to wash hands before holding Bible or other sacred objects, and avoid touching body parts during Bible reading time which are considered “dirty”
  • Clenched fists due to fear of giving God the middle finger
  • Blowing air to dispel intrusive thoughts
  • Random movements (like twitching nose) avoided out of fear that they “mean” something negative for spirituality, such as selling one’s soul to the devil
  • Attempt to isolate “dirty” actions (like using the bathroom or sex) from any thoughts of God to avoid contaminating Him; may lead to repetition of act till it can be completed without thinking about God in order to “finish on clean”
  • Tapping or touching for reasons that have overtly religious rationale, such as touching doorknob 10 times for the 10 Commandments or turning key in lock 3 times for the Holy Trinity
  • Avoiding physical contact with certain people or objects due to concerns of religious contamination

I am sure that there are more that can be added to this list of religious OCD’s bodily compulsions—feel free to add yours in the comments below! In another post, I talked about how bodily sensations can trigger religious OCD—but this list above is specifically about when the bodily action is itself the compulsion. It is an attempt to satisfy the uncomfortable feeling raised by an obsessive thought.

Dealing with Religious OCD’s Bodily Compulsions

At some point, you may have realized that other people are noticing. Or that you’re doing the same movements over and over again and they just don’t make sense.

So what can we do?

As far as I know, there isn’t a verse in Scripture that specifically speaks about compulsive bodily movements. But there is a broader concept behind these behaviors that I think Scripture does address.

Think with me for a moment about what we are attempting to accomplish through religious OCD’s bodily compulsions. Depending on how far along you are in your recovery journey, you probably think one of two things:

  1. That these bodily movements will actually prevent the harm, catastrophe, and damnation that you fear (for those at beginner levels in OCD management)
  2. That these bodily movements don’t actually prevent or fix anything, but you know your actions are a hard-to-resist way of managing your own anxiety, so you continue doing them anyways (for those at more advanced levels of OCD management)

In either case, bodily compulsions are a form of self reliance. We are looking to ourselves to supply a solution to our real or imagined catastrophes. Many people with scrupulosity will advance to the point of recognizing that these compulsions are a crock of baloney and have zero impact on our salvation or any other spiritual reality. But we continue the same patterns simply because stopping them creates too much anxiety.

It usually goes like this:

I know it doesn’t make sense to think that twitching my nose means I am agreeing to sell my soul to the devil. But I can’t stop being hyperaware of what I’m doing with my nose. I guess it’s actually fine to twitch my nose, even intentionally—but what if it’s not? I feel so anxious when I do it! I better avoid it, just in case.

There are surprising numbers of people stuck in the pit of religious OCD because of the infamous “just in case.” But that’s a topic for another day.

We are overcome with a panicky sense of doom whenever we tiptoe away from our irrational compulsions. And that feeling of anxiety is harder to deal with than the annoying compulsions themselves. So we keep doing the compulsions. The compulsions are our fix. They are our solution. WE are our own solution.

Relying on Self

What does the Bible say about self-sufficiency?

Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God.

2 Corinthians 3:5

Paul reminds us that our sufficiency is from God, not from our own works. Our compulsive behaviors can’t prevent bad things from happening, no matter how much our brain spiritualizes these actions. (And no, God did not decide to make YOU an exception out of all the people on the face of the planet and require YOU and you alone to tap in patterns of threes to secure your own salvation. Please don’t try to rationalize your unbiblical compulsion by trying to make yourself the exception.)

The prophet Jeremiah spoke about the blessedness of those who trust in God rather than trusting in themselves. He wrote,

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
And whose hope is the Lord.
For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters,
Which spreads out its roots by the river,
And will not fear when heat comes;
But its leaf will be green,
And will not be anxious in the year of drought,
Nor will cease from yielding fruit.

Jeremiah 17:7-8

The image of the tree planted by the waterside represents security and prosperity of the very best kind. Notice that Jeremiah has chosen a metaphor that shows the object which is prospering (the tree) and the object which causes it to prosper (the water). It is not the tree which makes itself live a long and healthy life. It is the water which brings it through drought and heat waves. It is the water which causes the tree to yield its fruit. The only act of the tree is to spread out its roots and receive the life-giving stream. How different this is from the first part of the parable!

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
And makes flesh his strength,
Whose heart departs from the Lord.
For he shall be like a shrub in the desert,
And shall not see when good comes,
But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness,
In a salt land which is not inhabited.

Jeremiah 17:5-6

The difference between the tree and the shrub is not that one is naturally hardier than the other. The difference is that one is planted next to a source of life and the other is planted in the salt flats.

Self-reliance is like being planted in a desert. There is no life source for us. Our self-reliant compulsions are salt upon our tongues and hot wind against our faces. They dry us out, dehydrate our souls, and at the end, lead us to despair.

Why, then, should we not forsake our compulsions, despite the anxiety caused by doing so, and run to the source of all life?

Bringing the Bodily Compulsions of Religious OCD to Christ

I know that bodily compulsions bring a false sense of safety and security. But dear friend, they lead away from the water of life that will soothe our souls in a long-term, sustaining way. When you really stop to think about the net effect of your compulsive behavior, is it not true that your compulsions fail to give lasting relief? Religious compulsions give a whiff of promise, but they are no true balm for our suffering.

A few months ago, my husband and I visited an elderly member of our church who was dying in the hospital. He was receiving palliative care to make the last few days comfortable, and he knew the end was near. But despite the prospect of dying very soon, he was strong in faith. He asked us to read his favorite psalm, and he smiled a pained but peaceful smile.

“I cannot drink water,” he told us with labored breath, “I’m not allowed to drink. Everything has to come through my feeding tube or my IV.” He stopped to smile through dry, chapped lips. “But you know, I don’t mind. I am looking forward to drinking the water of life that flows from the throne of God.” He pumped his fist weakly in the air–a grand gesture of victory for a man who saw through eyes of faith. He was willing to cheerfully forgo the relief of drinking the water of this earth, because he looked forward to the true water of life.

Is it not such with our compulsive behaviors? Perhaps we will feel as though we are dying of anxiety to give them up—but in truth, we are merely drawing closer to the true waters of life–the true depth of trusting in God rather than in ourselves–which will alleviate our anxiety so thoroughly that we need not fear when drought is coming.

Dear friend, if you have been struggling with the bodily compulsions of religious OCD, may I invite you to bring these to Christ? Tell Him about them—identify what physical gestures, movements, or avoidances you’ve been dealing with that serve as a form of anxiety management. Admit to Him that you know these motions have no magical qualities, and you don’t want to trust in them anymore. Ask Him to help you overcome. Then, each time you feel the urge to engage in these bodily compulsions, run to Christ instead of performing the action. 

Yes, you will feel anxious in the beginning as you start refusing to perform your compulsions. But the more you do it, and the more staunchly you choose to trust in Christ rather than the “magic” deliverance promised by your empty compulsions, the easier it will become.

Be encouraged, dear friend! God is with you as you seek to be planted by the living water which He has so freely provided. Trusting in Him will be a cooling balm to your soul, one which will never fail to satisfy.

Best wishes on the journey,

  • Thank you again, Jaime for this insightful blog post! When my son's Scrupulosity was at its worst, he had serious bodily compulsions, which at the time we did not understand and it was terrifying! He had big contortions like bending sideways or backwards sometimes kicking his leg out to the side at the end. For months, he had violent coughing that we finally learned was a compulsion. He had smaller compulsions like exaggerated facial ticks, and vocalizations usually to "negate" intrusive thoughts. He still battles daily, but thanks to lots of therapy including ERP and lots of prayer, he has improved so much! Thank the Lord!! Your blogs have been a lifeline for us as well. Thank you!

    • Lori,
      I just want to thank you for taking the time to share about your son’s bodily compulsions. You are the first person I’ve ever heard describe compulsions that sound so much like the ones I experience. So similar. Also, the idea of them “negating” the intrusive thoughts is right on. That’s exactly how it feels. I’m encouraged to hear that therapy has been helpful for your son, as well as prayer of course. I’ve struggling with feeling shame. My family is patient with me, but it’s tough to deal with in public, and sometimes people will react thinking I am hurt or will misinterpret my facial expressions. It’s a comfort just to hear that other families are also walking through this, and I am encouraged to pray and also seek therapy. I pray much blessing on your family and continued improvement for your son!

      • Amy,

        I'm so glad that sharing part of our story could help in some way! I'm so sorry you are dealing with this, but please know that it can get better. It was very hard for us to go out in public and be around people before. Now, it's hard to even tell when you're around him. We did spend over 2 months in outpatient ERP treatment. Best decision ever! He still sees a Psychologist every 2 weeks too. He learned that the compulsions were just feeding the OCD and after learning how to sit with his anxiety and learning that it would go down on its own, his compulsions are very minimal now. I don't know that his OCD will ever go away. We still deal with his payer life being a bit wonky, but he is understanding more every day. God bless you! Keep working and know that you can overcome this!

  • since reading this article Ive thought about something I do. I sit around and rub the sleeve of my shirt or the neck of my shirt across my lips. I do this at times til they are irritated and sometimes bleeding. is this a compulsion? I have done it for as long as I can remember. my husband tells me all the time to stop. I told him there are worse things that I could do. but now I'm thinking it's something I need to address.

  • I have religious OCD and the bodily compulsions I experience when an anxious thought comes to mind are what feels like involuntary fearful sounding gasps or even sudden shouts, like “Ah!”, sometimes accompanied by, or instead of, twitches or jerking motions. Usually freaks out anyone sitting next to me. Is this something that other people experience?

  • Hello Jamie! Thank you again for your encouraging words and for always pointing us back to the Lord to overcome! I did wish to ask a question. Has anyone ever mentioned tension in the head that comes alongside the OCD? A tightness within the brain that is undesirable, yet the more one dwells on it the worse it get. Then when one is alone and can think, the brain somewhat decompresses (usually accompanied with tears) and you feel better for a little bit? Have you noticed any pattern of people who ask this?

    • Oh certainly! Many people with OCD describe being able to “FEEL” what their brain is doing. For fun, you can look up brain scans of people with OCD versus normal controls. Waaaaay too much going on up there! Some people describe it as feeling like the brain is on fire, or tension, or constant motion/activity. And yes, I think a few tears are good for us from time to time. But if you find yourself crying a lot or unable to control your crying, it may be depression, which can come alongside of OCD and is something you might want to get checked out.

      • Thank you for your insight Jamie! If you have time, I would like to ask one more question. Have you ever heard of the The Berean Call? Dave hunt is its founder. It's a ministry named after the Berean Jews mentioned in the book of Acts. One of their articles mentions how Psychology in and of itself is one the greatest deceptions. I think they are speaking of psychology as the secular world understands it. If you have time, could you give me your assessment of their understanding?

        • Hi Kelby, I’ve never heard of this ministry, so I cannot comment intelligently about it. However, in general there is often a sentiment in many conservative Christian circles that secular psychology is bad. I myself am quite conservative and have grown up hearing similar hesitations. I do believe this is because much of secular psychology is rooted in relativism and an inappropriately high view of the human self. However, this emphasis does not negate the fact that there really is a “mind” within us that needs tending and care. Similar to the traditional secular view on cosmology and origins, there is a way of interpreting science that opposes the biblical account, but thanks to many creationist scientists, there are also ways of interpreting science that supports Scripture. I would argue that psychology is an interpretive science–it can either be done from a biblical or a secular stance. So no, I don’t condone all that is done in the name of psychology, but I would also hate for us to throw the baby out with the bathwater just because some people do it in a way we wouldn’t support.
          Hope this helps!

      • Thank you for the suggestion Jamie. It is interesting ( and slightly disturbing) the comparison between an ocd brain vs a non-ocd brain. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. I apologize for asking another question ( nature of the beast and all that), but is it possible for OCD to be a discipline from God? Similar to Paul's thorn in the flesh? Or could it be punishment from God designed to create repentance? Also in your experience with OCD, what is the difference between conviction from the Holy Spirit vs the OCD compulsion to do something?

        • Hi Kelby,
          Certainly, all things in life can be viewed through the lens of discipline from God–not discipline in the sense of “you’ve done something wrong, now I need to punish you!” but discipline in the sense of a sports coach giving us extra exercises because he sees that we can become olympians with a bit more training.

          And in answer to you other question, about conviction vs compulsion–in my own life, I have noticed that conviction that is truly from God is always gentle and peaceful (as opposed to frenzied and urgent) and it comes with hope (as opposed to hopeless condemnation). Also, I’m not sure how to describe this, but I’ll try and see if it makes sense for you…when I’m truly convicted, the prick to my heart is painful, but it is a pain that matches my intellect on the topic. There is CLARITY. With an OCD compulsion, it’s a feeling of doom that comes with wild, racing, confusing thoughts…one moment I’m sure I’ve sinned and the next minute I think not. There ISN’T clarity.

          Anyways…true conviction is a beautiful thing, and I think you’ll know it when it happens. Strange, isn’t it, that we can talk about conviction using words like “gentle,” “peaceful,” “hopeful,” “clarity,” “intellect,” and “pain” in the same breath. That’s so far from compulsion. 🙂

  • I don't have bodily compulsions, but I wanted to hear about it because in my case, I'm just aware of certain body parts by way of intrusion which causes me anxiety and depression sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed by it, but because of Jaime's previous blogs and or posts, I've been able to work through that a whole lot better. thank you for sharing!

    • Yep, this is me and my eyeballs. Sometimes I can’t stop hyperfixating on the way my eyeballs feel as they move in my eye sockets. Drives me absolutely NUTS hahaha! Have to just ignore it and keep on going!

  • JUST-IN-CASE! Not faith, but fear. Looking forward to that one. Thanks so much for your amazing and life-giving insights.
    I realize now that our scrupulosity originates in Genesis 3: in all that the snake says is the "What if God's holding out on you" and "How do you know the fruit won't make you more like God?" and "Just in case, you better take a bite." HA!
    I'm learning that my faith can grow through all the what-ifs, how-do-I-knows, and Just-in-case scenarios our creatively analytical brains can devise.

  • I start to blow air or shake my head and I'm like stop, Jaimie says these are compulsions. I also notice when my anxiety is really bad I make my hands into fists and hold them close to my body. I'm not thinking about giving anyone the finger or anything like that but I do it without thinking. my husband says why are you doing that. I'm like I don't know!

  • Jeremiah 2 also talks about how the people tried to "collect water in cracked and leaking pits (cisterns/wells) dug in the ground." Another good way to look at our compulsions. Thanks, as always, for a compassionate, thoughtful (and Biblical!) post.

  • Thank you for this! I struggle with many body compulsions and have slowly been trying to walk the road of recovery by stopping them, but the anxiety can be overwhelming at times. I’m thankful for this post!

  • I am so tired of the rhetorical "Nobody does X, right?" questions. With over 8 billion people, everybody does something, and why risk alienating people who, if they do the thing in the rhetorical question, are most in need of staying and receiving help?

    I had a surge of anger at the group in your story. I've been on the receiving end of enough outgroup stuff in my time (and my wife has been a lot more) that it's like, do these people even WANT others to be involved?

    • True. One of the things I learned when I did my undergrad degree in elementary education (and I had a wonderful professor) was that children need to feel like the classroom is a safe place in order to participate fully. So, no loaded questions, no leading questions, no questions where there’s only one hard-to-guess right answer. Definitely no belittling children’s ideas, always try to affirm what you can even if you have to redirect their responses……if it’s important for children, why not for adults, too?

  • Hi Jaimie,

    I certainly can relate to this topic. One compulsion that I feel comfortable addressing is how clean I feel that my hands have to be before I leave for Mass in anticipation of touching the Holy Eucharist. I may use paper towels to touch the doorknobs and certainly wash my hands, sometimes more than once, before I exit my home. When at Mass, I use hand sanitizer that I bring with me to apply right before I head to the altar. There are other compulsions, as well, and I perform them in order to avoid the terrible accusations that OCD generates in my mind which triggers guilt, anxiety and levels of uncertainty. I said it before and will say it again that OCD is relentless. I am aware that there are numerous subsets of OCD, but I can't help but believe that Religious OCD is one of the more difficult ones because of how it distorts our relationship with our faith which we rely on to help us through all of life's trials and tribulations.

    All the best!

    • I can so relate to this. At one point I had to be very careful when reading my Bible to not touch my nose (because my nose is dirty/contaminated) and it seemed like that determination not to touch my face/nose made me more itchy during Bible reading times. So I’d have to scratch something and then go wash my hands before I could touch the Bible again. Super annoying! I agree that religious OCD is particularly difficult, but it’s not impossible. We have to just keep going forward one day at a time, trying our best to learn helpful tools and lean on Christ for the strength to overcome.

    • I agree Jerry. I told someone that with contamination OCD you can decide not to wash your hands or touch a door knob and sit with it and see that nothing bad happens. with harm OCD you can hold a knife, sit with it and realize you didn't hurt anyone like you thought. And I am not saying these OCD's aren't horrendous, all OCD is. But with scrupulosity you sit with the uncertainty of salvation, hell, God's Spirit, and the list goes on and on. You have to believe by faith, not feelings that you are ok in your relationship with God. And most of the time our faith meters are very distorted because of OCD.

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