Do you ever obsess about your feelings? Do you feel apathetic about religious things and then start to panic about your feeling of apathy? Do you wake up feeling more anxious than usual and worry that your scrupulosity is taking a turn for that worse? Do you feel depressed and obsess about why you as a Christian are feeling so awful? If any of these examples resonate with you, you could be dealing with scrupulosity and secondary disturbance.
Secondary disturbance happens when we first have a primary emotion that bothers us, but then develop a secondary emotion about it.
For example, I tend to feel anxious about having anxiety. Most days, I no longer experience anything I’d call clinical anxiety. Sometimes, though, I’ll get some anxious thoughts and feelings from out of the blue. Then I’ll start worrying that these anxious feelings are an indicator that I’m about to have an OCD relapse.
My primary disturbance is waking up with some anxious feelings. That’s fairly normal. It happens to almost everyone from time to time, and most people can just let it go. But if I get worried and anxious and obsessive about the fact that I’m having some anxiety (and what it might mean!), I am now having a secondary disturbance.
Dr. Michael Edelstein suggests this rule of thumb to detect when we are dealing with secondary disturbance:
Use this rule of thumb to nail it: when feeling anxious, depressed, or guilty, ask yourself: am I depressed about my emotion (e.g., anxiety, depression, anger) or about an external situation (e.g., rejection, failure, hassles)? If it’s the former, then you probably have a secondary disturbance.Dr. Michael Edelstein, Psychology Today
In this article, I’d like to speak more specifically to how I’ve seen secondary disturbance impact individuals with scrupulosity, and what we can do about it.
Most Common Types of Secondary Disturbance with Scrupulosity
First of all, let’s talk about three common types of secondary disturbance that occur with scrupulosity. These three types of secondary disturbances are apathy, increased anxiety, and enjoyment. These are by no means the only types of secondary disturbance that come to people with scrupulosity, but they are some common ones I’d like to address.
Scrupulosity and Apathy
A sense of apathy is extremely common for people who struggle with scrupulosity. In fact, I have a whole separate article dealing with this exact issue, so if you struggle with feeling spiritually dead, please check out my post entitled “Worried About Numbness and Apathy Toward God?”
Feeling apathetic, lethargic, or careless about religion is understandable when you struggle with an anxiety disorder that is constantly trying to crush you with toxic spirituality, overthinking, and burnout. The apathy that we experience with OCD is not a true spiritual distaste but is a rejection of the overwrought, overly intense type of spirituality that OCD presses upon us.
However, people that experience apathy in conjunction with scrupulosity rarely see this as a benign event. There’s almost always anxiety attached to the apathy.
- “I can’t get myself to feel passionate about God anymore. Oh no! I must have a hard heart.”
- “The sermon didn’t move me at all. I’m so numb towards holy things! Maybe I’m not saved.”
- “I’m not even slightly interested in reading my Bible. There must be something VERY wrong with me. I better analyze myself to figure out……”
Can you resonate with any of these statements?
Please notice that in each case, it is the primary experience of “apathy” that leads to an obsessive thought. Instead of admitting that all Christians experience a lack of fervor in various seasons and that this is fairly normal, we get anxious and obsessive about the emotion.
The root issue is that we believe the emotion–apathy–is unacceptable and must be “dealt with.”
Scrupulosity and Increased Anxiety
A moment ago, I wrote about how I can get anxious about the fact that I have an anxious day or two. The simple question, “am I relapsing?” can turn into quite a bit of unnecessary introspection. More anxiety than normal can seem like something disturbing that requires our attention.
This type of secondary disturbance is generally more common with people who have begun having a measure of success with scrupulosity recovery. We get to a better place and there’s no way we want to go back to the darkness we’ve crawled through. We begin policing ourselves and our anxiety levels, always quietly monitoring for any significant increases.
But we all have our days, don’t we? I call them “down days.” One of our group members called them “dinosaur days.” Whatever you call them (feel free to leave a comment if you have a special term for your worse-than-normal days!) it’s normal to have some abnormal days!
Why do we get anxious about the fact that we’re a little more anxious on some days? Because, like in the previous issue, we believe that relapse is unacceptable. We are unwilling to accept the idea that we are fallible and imperfect and that our recovery might have some loops and backtracking. We hated the suffering we experienced during our worst times, and we aren’t willing to accept the possibility that we might have to go through that again.
Anxiety about increased anxiety is one of the types of secondary disturbance that you’ll likely face with scrupulosity once you begin getting better. But that doesn’t mean you have to give in to it!
Scrupulosity and Enjoyment
Believe it or not, another type of secondary disturbance often seen with scrupulosity relates to enjoyment!
Here’s how it usually goes: Scrupulous Sally is working hard on getting her relationship with God back “on track.” For a long time, she’s felt like she’s not saved and not pleasing God. Scrupulous Sally really leans into her spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, fasting, and evangelism, and as long as she performs “up to par,” she doesn’t feel too bad.
But this week, Sally and her husband leave for a cruise to the Virgin Islands, a yearly tradition. She always looks forward to it–a full week of delicious cuisine, swimming, tanning, spa treatments, and onshore activities. On the first day of the cruise, as Sally reclines on a deck chair next to the on-board swimming pool sipping fresh fruit juice out of a coconut, she feels all her stress seep away. A lovely sense of relaxation and enjoyment comes over her. Ahh, vacation!
But a few moments later, another emotion enters: anxiety. Is it right for her to enjoy herself so much?
Her mind starts spinning a mile a minute. Think of how bad cruise ships are for the environment! And how much money they spend on their yearly cruise–shouldn’t she be donating the money to missions? And how dare she enjoy herself when she isn’t totally, 100% sure about her salvation! She ought to be spending time in prayer and fasting, not relaxation!
The primary feeling–enjoyment–has triggered the secondary feeling, anxiety. Scrupulous Sally is experiencing secondary disturbance whenever she gets anxious about enjoying herself.
This struggle can be rooted in a number of different misbeliefs. Perhaps she believes God doesn’t approve of her enjoying herself. Or maybe she believes she has to “earn” the right to enjoy life’s innocent pleasures. Maybe she believes she can’t enjoy anything if there are unsolved questions in her mind (which are always present for the person with OCD!)
What to Do About Scrupulosity and Secondary Disturbance
So what do we do about secondary disturbance with scrupulosity? Well, if we remember how scrupulosity tends to be very black-and-white in its reasoning. It likes to squeeze us with “musts” and “shoulds.” So, we can respond to the secondary disturbance by not giving the OCD brain what it wants.
Take, for example, my own struggle with secondary disturbance. If I have a down day, I immediately think, “oh no, I’m having a relapse!”
But this is very black-and-white thinking. Just because I have one down day doesn’t mean my whole life is going down the tube. It doesn’t mean a relapse is imminent.
Also, notice my absolutist thinking. It tells me that I must never have a relapse. It would be terrible, horrible, and awful for me to have a relapse. It tells me that if I go back to that dark place that I once was, I will never get out. It will be eternal. I can’t handle it.
What black-and-white, absolutist thinking! I can recover if I have a relapse. It’s not the end of the world. I will survive whatever life throws at me because God is beside me and he will help me.
As another example, what about people who struggle with the apathy that they feel after having a blasphemous thought, or apathy about spiritual things? How should they deal with the anxiety that arises in response to the primary disturbance, their apathy?
Again, we need to recognize that the black-and-white, absolutist thinking of OCD is trying to get the upper hand. There are no absolute statements in scripture that say that Christians must always feel passionate and constantly soaring with lofty flights of ecstatic religious feeling.
And as for the feeling of horror that you might think should always accompany your intrusive thoughts–well, don’t forget that you’re dealing with repetitive, ego-dystonic thoughts that are pestering you every few minutes for months on end (maybe years on end!) It’s natural for the brain to reach a point of emotional shutdown. You can only experience emotions like horror so many times before the mind tries to block out the intense emotion. Just ask traumatized war victims if their emotional response was different the first time they saw a dead body, or the hundredth time.
When you think about it, emotional numbness is actually a fairly reasonable response to the intrusive thoughts we deal with. But that’s not my main point. My main point is that there are many layers in complex situations like scrupulosity. We have to avoid pinning ourselves to the wall with absolute beliefs like, “I should always experience horror at my blasphemous thoughts to validate the fact that I don’t want them.”
You don’t have the feelings you would like or you think you should have? Learn to shrug your shoulders and say, “oh well.”
Oh well. If I relapse, I relapse. I’ll get over it again.
Oh well. If I don’t have the disgust against my intrusive thoughts that I think I ought to have, I’ll just need to leave this one with the Lord and trust Him to read my heart rather than me trusting my own validation techniques.
I’m enjoying myself so much I feel guilty. Oh, well. Since I’m relatively sure this is the false guilt of my scrupulosity, I’m just going to go with the 95% sureness and risk God’s displeasure. If I’m making an honest mistake, then I’m making a mistake. I trust God will redirect me and help me to see His will clearly. An honest mistake won’t mean the end of the world or the end of my relationship with Him.
Many of our struggles with secondary disturbance and scrupulosity can be traced back to the way we try to force an absolute, black-and-white reality. We allow ourselves to believe that these feelings are intolerable.
But here’s my main point: the feelings we have are NOT intolerable! We CAN handle them, and we will be fine!
The true reality is that there will be many times in life where our feelings will not be the way we want them to be–and we can live with that.
While writing this blog post, one of our Zoom group members shared his own secondary disturbance. Usually, he experiences blasphemous thoughts and then feels a sense of horror. But sometimes he feels apathetic and then gets anxious about the fact that he’s apathetic. On days when he doesn’t get the typical “horror” response, his secondary disturbance could be graphed as follows:
anxiety —> apathy —> blasphemous thoughts
This week, however, instead of feeling anxious about his apathy over his blasphemous thoughts, he felt “blah” about his apathy over his blasphemous thoughts. And this “blah” feeling towards his apathy was now making him anxious!
The chain of disturbances, as you see, can become infinitely long for the person with OCD. In his case, it now looked like this:
anxiety —> “blah” feeling —> apathy —> blasphemous thoughts
Yikes! Maybe you’ve found yourself dealing with a chain of secondary, tertiary, or even quaternary disturbances! (I’m quite certain that it is only within the OCD community that something like “quaternary disturbance” would even be mildly understood!)
If this describes your reality, I really encourage you to shrug your shoulders and relax. Whatever emotion you’re worrying about is just that–an emotion. And emotions are such poor indicators of reality. Feeling “blah” or not is a terrible way of validating whether you meant to have a blasphemous thought (although it can be a fairly good indicator of burnout!)
These feelings are just silly feelings. And even IF they are true, you’ll still be okay, and you can handle it. Learn to shrug your shoulders and say, “oh, well. I’m having an anxious day. So be it. I’ll get through it.” “Oh, well. I’m not feeling as hyped-up and antagonistic against my intrusive thoughts as I think I ought to be. Such is life for the person with chronic anxiety. That’s just how it’s going to have to be.”
Believe it or not, the less you worry about your emotional responses, the less intense they become. Look away from your emotions and, in the words of another one of our Zoom group members, “relax and go sit with Jesus and eat some ice cream.”
Can there be any better ending to a discussion about anxious people worrying about their emotions? I think not.
So let’s go sit with Jesus, eat some ice cream, and let come what may from our secondary disturbances. He’s taking terrifically good care of us, and we can trust that.
Best wishes on the journey,