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How Bodily Sensations Trigger Religious OCD 

 June 26, 2020

By  Jaimie Eckert

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to sufferers of scrupulosity and heard them talk about the bodily sensations of religious OCD.

  • That feeling of fleeting movement in the chest — was it the Holy Spirit departing forever?
  • That shift in the inner gut — was it a demon entering your body?
  • The long-lasting internal numbness — is it evidence that you’ve grieved the Holy Spirit?

Spiritual interpretations of bodily sensations are actually quite common for people with religious OCD. How and why does this happen? And does the Bible offer any advice to help us interpret subjective physical experiences? In this article, we’ll talk about the bodily sensations of religious OCD.

Is It Common to Have Bodily Sensations with Religious OCD?

Let me get straight to the point and say that it’s really common for people with ALL kinds of OCD to have frightening bodily sensations that they label with frightening interpretations.

It's common for people with all kinds of OCD to have frightening bodily sensations

Let me give you a few examples so you see that you are not alone in this.

  • People who suffer from OCD themes relating to sexuality may experience an unwanted groinal response to their intrusive thoughts. They then obsess about whether the unwanted thought actually made them aroused or not.
  • People who suffer from health anxiety (formerly known as hypochondria and having many overlapping features with OCD) experience relatively normal and short-lived bodily sensations such as twitching, throbbing, pulsing, moving, shifting, or aching in various body parts. They become hyper-fixated on these sensations and obsess about what fatal disease they may have.
  • People who suffer from religious OCD get normal bodily sensations that they interpret spiritually, obsessing about the Holy Spirit leaving them or the devil entering them.

Not everybody with scrupulosity has anxiety about bodily sensations, but a fair number do.

Across the board, obsessive-compulsive manifestations of all kinds have a tendency to over-interpret physical reactions — whether it is the terrifying groinal response of sexual OCD, the minor headache that is believed to be a brain tumor for health anxiety, or the anxious hot flash that is perceived as the hand of divine judgment in religious OCD.

It’s common. But is it correct?

How Should the Christian Interpret the Bodily Sensations of Religious OCD?

Research about OCD shows that this disorder can give not only false thoughts but also false feelings and urges. Just like the obsessive-compulsive brain can create a lot of distracting noise and static, the body can, too.

People with OCD tend to perceive these physical sensations as having important meaning, and will then create a very subjective interpretation that cannot be justified either by medical or Biblical explanations.

What does the Bible say to the scrupulous Christian who believes he or she can “feel” the departure of the Holy Spirit, the disapproval of God, the divine hand of judgment, or the entrance of a demon?

Interestingly, although the Bible does not use the words “obsessive-compulsive” or speak directly to the disorder, there are many helpful principles that can lead us beyond this issue.

The Subjective Nature of Bodily Sensations

One of the main issues with Christians knowing how to interpret physical reactions is the subjectivity of these attempts.

There is no book that can help you translate whether you’re getting the spine-tingling feelings of glory or the spine-tingling feelings of terror. Many sensations that are commonly interpreted as something “spiritual” — tingling, waves of heat or cold, a rushing feeling, trembling, ecstasy, lightness, heaviness, dizziness, sweating, or internal movements — can be understood as either negative or positive.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me give you a Biblical example.

Let’s just do a simple word search on “trembling.”

If you had a fit of trembling right now and felt compelled to interpret the phenomenon in a spiritual way, would you give “trembling” a positive or negative meaning?

There happens to have been a lot of trembling in Bible days. And sometimes it was a good thing. Sometimes it was a bad thing. Sometimes it was just a normal sign of physical aging. Take a look at the chart below.

Bodily sensations of religious OCD

The Bible recognizes that some of the same bodily sensations can indicate totally different spiritual situations.

But with scrupulosity, we become the sole interpreter of our experiences. It takes on an almost mystical quality, where we are constantly internally-focused, looking for physical phenomena to confirm our obsessions.

But who can say whether your tingles come from the Holy Spirit, the devil, or a pinched nerve from kneeling too long?

It’s all so subjective.

It flies in the face of everything the Bible teaches about how God communicates with us — through His Word, through Providence, through godly counsel. It makes SELF the final arbiter of truth.

With the bodily sensations of religious OCD, we become the sole interpreters of what those sensations mean.

The Manufactured Nature of Bodily Sensations

I’m not from a very charismatic faith background.

I didn’t grow up dancing, swaying, jumping, or being slain in the spirit at church.

With quite a bit of international travel under my belt, I have come to appreciate many different modes of worship. I feel comfortable saying a loud, hearty “amen” in African churches just as much as I appreciate the dignified silence in German churches.

But ecstatic worship experiences is not something I grew up with.

When I got my BA in Biblical Studies, I chose a small, conservative Bible college. One of my professors talked to us about epistemology — that is, the philosophical route we take to arrive at truth.

“Historically, relying on physical or personal experience to arrive at objective Bible truth has never been a reliable epistemology,” he told us.

Then he made an unforgettable demonstration.

“I’m going to preach for 5 minutes,” he said, “and by the time I’m done, you will get tingles down your spine.” Although he was generally a very calm, rational speaker, he modulated his tone of voice and preaching style to a dramatic pitch. He became intensely expressive. He preached the most charismatic 5-minute sermon I’ve ever heard.

When he finished, everyone in the classroom was astonished.

We’d all felt it.

The shivers.

The tingles.

The falsely manufactured bodily sensations that he had created through his preaching style.

That’s when I realized that bodily feelings may not be helpful signals for my spiritual life. It’s entirely possible for other people, environmental factors, and even myself to manufacture sensations and then create faulty messages from them.

Think about it. The worship team plays soft music during the prayer, and it feels so much more meaningful. You see television advertisements for food, and you suddenly start to feel hunger pangs. The more you think about your itchy ankle, the more it seems to itch.

Physical sensations can be manufactured — either by ourselves or by other influences.

Bodily sensations of religious OCD can be manufactured

So why would we put so much weight on the bodily sensations of religious OCD as some kind of ultimate message from God? It doesn’t make sense.

The Predictable Nature of Bodily Sensations of Religious OCD

Bodily sensations can be subjective and manufactured, but when it comes to religious OCD, they are also quite predictable.

In another post, I talked about intrusive thoughts about the devil, and spoke particularly about the cycle of emotions that accompany these intense obsessions. I drew a diagram which I will copy here, indicating the rising emotions of the OCD spike.

Often, at the peak of the obsessive-compulsive episode, people may “give in” or cognitively “agree” to whatever intrusive thought they have been violently resisting. They then may plunge into a state of mental silence, during which they experience numbness, emotionlessness, or even depersonalization (feeling like they are not themselves).

Religious OCD Cycle: Reconciliation Stage

In this sense, certain emotions and bodily sensations are predictable in the OCD cycle.

Despite having my own scrupulosity well under control, I do sometimes have spikes during times of high stress. But I am now very competent at understanding and predicting what will come next.

I know that a flurry of compulsive ministry activities will be followed by rising levels of panic, anxiety, and heart palpitations. Then comes anger and intrusive thoughts against God. Then comes the mental explosion and a drop of mental silence and disassociation.

It’s predictable.

Thankfully, it’s ever so much rarer than it used to be, and when I find myself on the roller coaster, I can literally tell myself what’s coming next.

So when I do get a racing heart or numb feelings, I no longer try to interpret it spiritually. I know it’s not God. It’s my OCD.

God Doesn’t Speak to Us Through Our Bodies

The Bible doesn’t teach that God speaks to us or communicates ANY important spiritual truth through bodily sensations. Rather,

Can you find any Bible verse where God communicated an important truth to someone through their liver, knee, or eyebrow? Did God ever help someone know their eternal destiny from shifting intestines or a twitching eyelid?

I haven’t found evidence for that.

But for the person with religious OCD, it feels so real. I get it. I’ve been there myself. I’m just trying to help you cognitively recognize that it isn’t an appropriate way to receive truth.

You know it doesn’t make sense.

You can just feel it in your bones. ? (Sorry — bad pun!)

Conclusion

The bodily sensations of religious OCD are hard to ignore. It seems like there is meaning in them. But the truth is, physical feelings are spiritually neutral. Sometimes, the same tingle can appear in two completely opposite contexts.

But more importantly, the Bible never asks us to interpret physical sensations. It’s just not on the table for discussion. These tremors, tingles, movements, and aches might have a meaning, but they don’t have a spiritual meaning.

As someone with religious OCD, you can learn to pay less attention to these bodily feelings and assign less importance to them. You can reach a point where a feeling (or lack thereof) no longer sucks you into an endless rumination cycle.

But the first step to take in making progress is to recognize that God is not communicating anything through your bodily sensations.

God is not communicating anything through your bodily sensations.

Once you recognize this fact, you’ll be free to view them as “false sensations” that can be treated just like any other OCD obsession.

So where are you in your experience? Do you have a lot of scary physical sensations that feel like something of spiritual importance? Or do you recognize them as false sensations and are at the point of trying to deal with them appropriately?

Drop me a line below and tell me a bit about your experience with scrupulosity’s bodily sensations.

Best wishes on the journey,

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  1. This blog post is awesome for someone of the Christian perspective. People of other views may or may not find it helpful depending on how open they are to other perspectives. I’m a Christian and found it very educational and insightful.
    That being said I have one thought on which I will expound – though our thoughts and feelings (emotional, physical and mental) are not a reliable source of information, God does sometimes confirm things through them when they line up with His Word. I give the example in your chart of Psalm 96:9 where the feeling of trembling “can mean awe and wonder” in worship. I think the important thing is not to rely on or or use emotions/thoughts/sensations to dictate to us what God says or what truth is.
    I have a lot more to say on this about discerning God’s voice for the individual having Scrupulosity. I talk a little bit about in the video I’ll link below: Knowing God’s voice. I will likely make sequels to this as there are treasures in God’s Word for those who seek Him – delightful things that bring healing, deliverance and that abundant life Jesus promised in John 10, even to and especially to those who have religious OCD. We are the bruised reeds He will not break and the smoldering wicks He will not snuff out (Isaiah 42:3).
    Thank you, Jaimie Eckert, for your anointed blog post. I pray many read it and recognize God’s voice speaking to them personally. There is no voice like Jesus’ voice and no words like God’s Word. May our thoughts, feelings and sensations line up with His. In Jesus Name, Amen.
    https://youtu.be/sWte4XAtCyk

    1. Hi, Shawna! Thank you so much for your kind words. I have appreciated your videos on scrupulosity and hope you will keep sharing your journey. One thing I loved in the video you linked is when you said, “if you don’t know what God wants you to do, just stay the course.” Such practical advice!

      I think it’s really difficult for the scrupulous person to discern God’s voice/will. Harder than for the average person. It’s so common for the intrusive thoughts of religious OCD to end up seeming like God’s voice, and then we spend excessive amounts of time trying to pick apart the sensations, impressions, and feelings to figure out whether it was really God or not. I don’t doubt that God speaks to us through many ways. You mentioned in your video feeling the love of God through your dog — while I think it’s definitely valid (I would call “pet love” part of general revelation, i.e. what we can know about God through the natural created world) the caveat I would add is that I wouldn’t recommend making important decisions or conclusions about my spiritual destiny based on sensations, coincidences, song lyrics, feelings, etc.

      I think the crucial difference is knowing God’s LOVE AND PRESENCE (what you addressed in your video) versus knowing God’s OBJECTIVE TRUTH and WILL. For scrupulous people like us, I think we can balance our tendency to go overboard by reining ourselves in from subjective, experiential ideas that God is speaking His WILL to us while continuing to be open to seeing His LOVE and PRESENCE. And, I think that is what you are getting at, too, from a little bit different angle.

      Glad to have you here at the blog! You’re a very encouraging, kind person and wonderful to have in support group. I wish you the very best in your recovery!

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