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What is OCDOCD SubtypesCan excessive prayer be bad for my mental health? A Christian therapist’s perspective

Can excessive prayer be bad for my mental health? A Christian therapist’s perspective

6 min read
Melanie Dideriksen, LPC, CAADC

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When I was about 6 or 7, I started to pray. A lot. Every night I would lay in bed and talk to God. I had to say thank you for all my blessings—my mom and dad and my sisters; the health and wellness of my family. I felt that if I didn’t say thanks for the things that were so important to me, I would lose those things. 

If I forgot to mention something in my prayer, I would start over. There were times I would lie awake in bed for hours, starting my prayer over again and again, in an attempt to get it just right.

Around this same time in my life, I started having intrusive images of the devil. His sinister eyes haunted me, only adding to my obsession with perfect prayer. My parents tried to reassure me, saying that I could rebuke him, so doing so became a part of my obsessive prayer life as well. By the time I was 10 years old, I had quite the repertoire of compulsions to keep everyone safe, keep the devil away, and make sure I was in the good graces of God. But it was exhausting. I was always worried and panicky, and all of those rituals didn’t seem to quell my anxiety and fear at all. 

My faith is something I value—perhaps what I value the most. However, as someone who received a diagnosis of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), I had to learn the difference between being a faithful person and acting from a compulsive place. I had to learn how to decipher when my OCD was latching onto my faith and distorting it so it worked against me. 

It took years for me to find freedom from my obsessive prayer, but it was possible. If you’re struggling with obsessive prayer yourself and you want answers—and help—please keep reading.

Does obsessing about prayer mean you have obsessive compulsive disorder? 

Not necessarily. As its name suggests, OCD has two components: obsessions and compulsions. People have unwanted thoughts, urges or images that recur, referred to as obsessions. To deal with the obsessions, they feel the need to engage in compulsions, or repetitive behaviors or mental acts to reduce related anxiety. When OCD is present, there’s often an impact on many aspects of a person’s life, such as work, school, and personal relationships.

It’s important to note that there’s a specific name for OCD involving religious or moral obsessions, and it’s called Religious OCD or Scrupulosity OCD.

Religious or Scrupulosity OCD isn’t always a diagnosis that comes easy—in part because many of the behaviors involved can appear as “normal” concerns about being faithful or ethical. For instance, a religious leader may tell you that you’re simply a devout person and there’s nothing to worry about, unknowingly accommodating your compulsive need for reassurance. That said, a mental health professional who specializes in OCD will be able to make an accurate diagnosis and guide you in treatment, often urging you to enlist the help of your religious leaders as well.  

Obsessions come in all forms, but here are some common obsessions that you might relate to: 

  • “Have I prayed correctly? Have I prayed for the correct amount of time? I was a bit distracted. Maybe I should do it again.” 
  • “I was distracted during prayer and was thinking about my to-do list a lot; did I just commit a sin?”
  • “I started to laugh during prayer. Does this mean I don’t take my religion seriously?” 
  • “I just said ‘God dammit’ in my head when I stubbed my toe. I need to pray immediately and ask for forgiveness.”
  • “I had a mean thought about that person in front of me in the checkout lane at the grocery store.  I better ask God to bless them, or something bad will happen to them, or me.”
  • “I’m not a good representative of my religion because I don’t pray enough.” 
  • “I can’t seem to find the right words, so my prayers aren’t effective.” 

If you’re doubting your relationship with prayer, does it mean you’re unfaithful?

OCD often latches on to the things we deem most important in our lives, sowing fear and doubt into our most central values. For example, someone who struggles with Harm OCD and worries about hurting their child likely loathes the idea of causing harm to their loved one more than anything. Someone who deals with Perfectionism OCD likely truly values doing a good job, working hard, and being proud of their accomplishments. 

OCD makes you believe that you will act in opposition to what you hold most dear. In the case of Religious or Scrupulosity OCD, the nature of your thoughts is to convince you that you aren’t devout, or faithful enough. These worries feel extremely real when you’re experiencing them, but it’s all simply a lie that OCD tells.

When a therapeutic approach to your obsession with prayer is needed

It never hurts to talk with a therapist if you are concerned about your relationship to prayer. If you are highly distressed, and feel that your thoughts about prayer are affecting your life, then it may be time for an assessment with a professional who is trained in treating OCD. Luckily, there is great treatment available if you’re struggling with religious scrupulosity OCD. 

The best course of treatment for religious or scrupulosity OCD, like all types of OCD, is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is considered the gold standard for OCD treatment and has been found effective in up to 80% of people with OCD, and the majority of patients experience results within 12-25 sessions on average. 

Contrary to popular portrayals and beliefs, not all forms of therapy work for all mental health issues. In fact, talk therapy can sometimes even make symptoms of OCD worse, not better. In ERP, a person is guided by a trained therapist to confront their obsessive thoughts and fears, without relying on compulsions like repetitive prayer to feel better temporarily. An ERP therapist will start low and slow. This means that a person in treatment will engage with a trigger that brings about a lower amount of fear, then work up to triggers that are likely to cause a great deal of fear.

It’s important to remember that engaging in ERP to treat OCD does not threaten or oppose religion or faithful practice. In fact, when patients are gradually released from intense doubt about their relationship to prayer, they often find that they come out the other side with renewed faith and a greater relationship with their religious practice. ERP does not create new doubts and fears—it just teaches you a new way to relate to the ones that you have and understand that they’re an OCD problem, not a religious problem. 

Where to get help 

Help is easier to access than you think. You can schedule a free call with NOCD; all of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. Many of us have dealt with OCD themselves and understand how crucial ERP therapy is. NOCD offers live face-to-face video therapy sessions with OCD therapists, in addition to ongoing support on the NOCD telehealth app, so that you’re fully supported during the course of your treatment. You can also join our Religious & Spirituality OCD community and get 24/7 access to personalized self-management tools built by people who have been through OCD and successfully recovered.

Learn more about ERP
Patrick McGrath, PhD

Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."