How Bodily Sensations Trigger Religious OCD

Scrupulosity Video Post

Jaimie Eckert

Published on Jun 26, 2020; Updated on Aug 4, 2020

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,

jaimie eckert signature
  • Hi,

    I'm struggling with the fear that unwanted groinal responses have condemned me and I fear what they could mean for my motives. I fear that God may consider it sin and judge me for them.

  • I recently think that I blasphemers the Holy Spirit a few years ago. I was baptized in the Spirit which is most assuredly a supernatural experience that you can feel the power of the Spirit and love of Christ in your whole mind and body. Anyone who has received this separate gift would attest to the same thing. It is what David had. When a believer is filled with the Holy Spirit they often can feel the Spirit as it is like a power in them and they feel a peace that surpasses understanding and joy and love that again is supernatural. My mind was illuminated and enlightened whenever I would read scripture which was another spiritual manifestation. Read the Psalms and you’ll see how David talks about how he can “feel” the weight of unconfessed sin and displeasure from God when he is grieving the Spirit and how his bones ache, anxious thoughts, heavy weight, thirsty or parched, etc. I think God created our bodies to have feelings to direct us in what issues are going on in our heart that needs changed through confession of sin and repentence. I know I wasn’t mature enough to realize this and was grieving the Spirit because of unconfessed sin and continued to spiral down in depression because my difficult circumstances weren’t changing when I was the one that needed to change. Instead of confessing and repenting, I drifted further and further away from God and then started having doubts I was even saved which was a lie and then gave up in my heart and mind because I thought God had rejected me because I didn’t want to suffer anymore but all I was needing to do was confess and repent. I think that blasphemy is essentially hardening your heart slowly because you are not confessing sin and repenting at the promptings of the Spirit through revealed truth in His Word, others advise, conscience, etc and never do because you either assume you don’t need to because you believe your saved and can’t lose salvation (presumption) or give up because you think it’s too late because you forget all that is required is confession and repentance. There is no forgiveness of sins unless one confesses and repents so if this stops due to neglect then it seems like one can lose the Holy Spirit. I could feel the Holy Spirit in me for 3 years straight and experienced spiritual gifts, power, prayer, healing, illumination, enlightenment, peace, joy, love, faith and now it is gone. I am not talking about an emotional feeling but a supernatural manifestation of the Spirit of God. My mind cannot imagine why all of this would leave at the same time after years of grieving the Spirit through unconfessed and unrepentant sin and then doubting and telling God I couldn’t suffer anymore if I didn’t blaspheme the Spirit. I don’t know why my faith would essentially vanish. I used to be filled with new holy and godly effections and a hunger and thirst for righteousness and to love and obey Jesus and now it is gone. I was a new creation inside with the mind of Christ and now my mind is filled with constant sinful and blasphemous thoughts and doubt, unbelief, despair, and no fruits of the Spirit. I have always had OCD but when I was filled with the Spirit I never had religious OCD. I am totally stuck and don’t know what to believe. It would be one thing if I never experienced the new birth and then started having religious OCD and just always believed but this is so different after experiencing being filled with the Spirit as it is. transformational as your inner life completely changes. And now it feels completely undone after feeling like the Holy Spirit left me and shorty after feeling an evil spirit enter. I wouldn’t think this way if the manifestation and gifts of the Spirit didn’t leave but they did so I don’t know how else to interpret. Believers are told not to grieve and quench the Spirit which happens from certain serious sin. And then not to blasphemy the Spirit which would happen at the end after a prolonged period of grieving and then quenching the Spirit.

    • Hello; I realize this comment is a few min to an old but I’m hoping you’re still on here. Can I talk to you about your experience? I had something similar happen and it’s very frightening.

  • As a teen I went to church with a friend. I went up at the alter call after a fiery sermon. They asked me if I knew who would save me. I said God, and they said, no it is Jesus. I was so insecure and embarrassed, that my head felt like it would explode and I couldn’t even hear what they were saying. They asked me if I could pray or pray after them. I prayed after them but don’t remember much. I was just so embarrassed.
    Years later, I had joined a church and I remember the preacher asking, are you sure you asked Jesus. I had an instant panic attack. I went home and searched my Bible on being saved and tried to pray this prayer I had on a track over and over to get it right and say and mean it
    I just seemed to stay in a state of intense panic. The next night at church, I wasn’t hardly listening. I was still in a panic. I don’t know why, but I remember praying that similar prayer again. Just saying I knew I was a sinner and I accept You as my Lord and Savior, please forgive me and save me. Before I had hardly started the prayer, something happened. Not a feeling or emotion or sensation. I remember finishing the prayer, and at the same time, thinking to myself,I think I just got saved. All I had to do was ask!
    But I didn’t tell anyone that night, so I thought all was lost. I ended up in a stress center in a big ocd way! But no one really understood my fears. I can see now that it was ocd after years of suffering,, but clearly no one there 30 yrs ago had heard of it.
    So…. Yrs later, I was alone at home and I just didn’t want to worry anymore. I told God I believed he died for me and I accepted him as my lord and savior.
    My OCD still tells me that neither time was from my heart, just my legalistic mind,

    I thank you for this site. It is so comforting to know others that have intrusive thoughts and that I am not crazy because everyone I have talked to says it is a faith is sure mostly.
    Thanks again.

  • Hi. I'm losing my mind, because a few years ago I had a groinal response in a church during Mass, and I remember that I was horrified, but I don't remember what have I done. – did i freeze or did I start fidgeting? My mind has created awful scenarios, and I'm scared that I had done something awful during this Mass and I'm scared I had insulted God and I will go to hell… I'm sorry, I'm just to scared… I can't imagine doing something like that.

  • Thank you for this article. It did shed some light on what I might be experiencing even though you didn’t really mention exactly what happens to me. I have asked the Lord to save me and forgive me of my sins more times than I can count. I know he’s my only way to heaven. Sometimes during church I feel a strong urge to go to the altar to pray for salvation once again. Those thoughts of feeling like I’m lost makes me sweat, my heart pound and I then think we’ll this is God convicting me to be saved. Is this normal with religious OCD? Have you heard others say they wonder if it’s God convicting them? What can I do to stop these feelings ?

    • Hi Stacey,
      Thanks for your comment! I do think that what you’re describing (sweating, heart pounding, etc) sounds like a very typical stress response. I get something similar when I go with my German husband to his home country and he drives very fast with me on the autobahn. 🙂 Sweating, heart pounding, fingernails permanently stuck in the upholstery–you get the picture! But I wouldn’t say that this is the Holy Spirit convicting me of anything. It just means there is something that is stressing me, and my nervous system is reacting in the way God created it to.

      Most likely, your stress response comes from having nervous thoughts about possibly being lost. When God convicts us (particularly when He is convicting the little lambs in the scrupulosity community who already have extremely tender and sensitive consciences) He convicts very gently. Try to think of times in your life when you KNEW for 100% that it was God speaking or intervening in some way. Most people with religious OCD, when the clouds begin to clear, will be able to tell a real difference between the gentle voice of God and the harsh/condemning/anxiety-inducing voice of OCD.

      Hope this helps a little…
      Jaimie

  • Hello, I was taking Communion. At the exact moment I swallowed the bread I had a evil satanic thought . hail s-t-n I heard in my head.
    I became extremely scared and very very hot. I started sweating. I thought the heat I was feeling was Gods anger with me . I was so upset that after the service I got up and quickly walked out . I did not stop to talk or shake hands with anyone.
    I have suffered with theses types of thought for about 6 months now. It is completely devastating to me .

    • Yes, this is the world of religious OCD. These are called intrusive thoughts, and they are sometimes triggered during moments of religious importance. Have you reached out yet to any therapists who specialize in OCD?

      • Hi Jaimie, Thank you for responding back. I’m still not certain if I want to see a therapist just yet. Your post and videos have been extremely helpful and have dramatically lowered my anxiety. I look forward to your lessons though . I will be signing up for them soon.

        Thanks again and God Bless you.

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