As a therapist, I’ve helped my share of people who think that what they are going through is rare and unspeakable. More often than not, they are not alone.
One example is when people worry they are possessed by demons. Yes, this might not be something people talk about openly in their social circles, but it’s nothing to be ashamed about. Still, if this is something you’re experiencing, it’s normal to be distressed, confused, and searching for answers. Keep reading to find out what could be going on and how to get help.
What is Demonophobia?
Demonophobia is the fear of demons. Often—but not all the time—this fear has religious roots, as people brought up in a religious household may have picked up some beliefs about hell and demonic possession. The majority of people who experience demonophobia understand that this fear is irrational, but—as with most phobias—this knowledge alone is not enough to quiet their fears.
How fears of demonic possession may begin
First, it’s important to point out that fear of demons can begin at any time. While some people think this is a childhood fear that people grow out of, it can definitely start in adulthood.
Let’s start with an example of a woman who sought my help recently. A patient, let’s call her Jessica, was tucking her 3 year old into bed when she had the sudden thought that she could easily put a pillow over his face and smother him. She felt a sudden rush of adrenaline and fear, and asked herself, “Why would I have that thought when I love my son so much?” She quickly kissed him goodnight and walked out of the room, telling her husband he needed to read the bedtime story to their son because she needed the bathroom.
To cope, she told herself over and over that she would never hurt her child. Being a Christian woman, she started to repeat a prayer asking God to never allow her to have a thought like that again. This brought some relief, but only temporarily.
Later that same evening while breastfeeding her younger child, she has another thought. This time, it’s about squeezing her infant’s neck. She stops breastfeeding instantly.
Over the next several weeks, she continues to experience disturbing thoughts of this nature. As a result, she prays compulsively, avoids being alone with her children, and stops breastfeeding altogether.
Shortly, Jessica is struck by a new and even less expected fear. She begins to wonder: “What if I’m possessed?” She searches online for any information she can find about “demon possessions,” and visits her parish priest looking for reassurance.
Her priest, who has experience in the mental health field, recognizes her symptoms and does not think she is possessed. First, he points out that she is in the postpartum stage and could be experiencing some symptoms due to that fact alone. At the same time, he refers her to me, a therapist who treats obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), in order to be evaluated for OCD or a related anxiety disorder.
What does OCD have to do with fear of demons?
If all you’ve ever heard about OCD is that it involves an obsession with tidiness, cleanliness, and avoiding germs, it might surprise you to learn that there are many different types of OCD.
One subtype is called Harm OCD. It could look like this: One minute you are performing a mundane activity—driving a car, playing with your kid, or taking a shower. The next you are haunted by a fixation that you will drive off the side of the road, do something to hurt your child, or dig a razor blade into your skin until you bleed. Essentially, OCD obsessions can be intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, sensations or urges about causing harm against your will. Sounds a little similar to what you might imagine being possessed by a demon is like, right?
In the example of Jessica, she thinks she’s possessed because she knows that she would never want to harm her family members. Ironically, this is exactly how OCD works. OCD tends to fixate on what is most important to someone. When a person values being caring and responsible and taking care of others above all else, OCD will latch onto these values and cause them to have obsessions related to harming others, leading to urgent compulsions that are done to feel safe.
Jessica was ultimately diagnosed with OCD, which was manifesting as Harm OCD. But there are other subtypes of OCD where the fear of demon possession is prevalent. One notable example is called religious or scrupulosity OCD. This subtype is characterized by ongoing intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, sensations or urges around violating a religious, moral or ethical belief. Sometimes, people with scrupulosity OCD fear that since they are not able to be perfect in their faith, they are susceptible to demonic possession, or feel as if “blasphemous” intrusive thoughts are occurring due to demonic influence. The guilt and anxiety over these “immoral” thoughts drive these people to engage in various compulsions aimed to alleviate their distress (e.g., confessing to a religious figure or praying repetitively and ritualistically).
How to identify if your fear of demons may be OCD
Just because you might have a random scary thought about becoming possessed by a demon doesn’t mean you have OCD. You might have just watched “The Exorcist” on movie night and now you feel afraid. After a few days, you forget about the scary movie and get back to your normal routine. However, if your intrusive thoughts about demonic possession are recurring and you are engaging in behaviors in an attempt to reduce, control, or counteract these fears, you may be struggling with some form of OCD.
As the name of the disorder suggests, there are two key parts to OCD: obsessions and compulsions. In other words, if you’re obsessing about a fear of demons but not engaging in compulsions, then it’s unlikely that you have OCD. In these cases, some form of anxiety disorder may be at play. Remember: a compulsion is a repetitive behavior, mental or physical, done in response to an obsessive fear or worry in an attempt to prevent something bad from happening or to quickly reduce distress and anxiety.
Here are some examples of compulsions related to fears about demonic possession may include:
- Not being alone with people who trigger obsessions about harm
- Praying constantly
- Seeking reassurance from a religious leader
- Giving yourself reassurance: “I would never do that, I love my family.”
- Researching on the internet about demonic possession, signs of it, and remedies, religious or otherwise
- Attending all religious services even when they interfere with one’s ability to show up for work, school, etc.
- Theological research to look for reassurance of one’s worth
How to get help
First things first: Even if your issue isn’t OCD or a related anxiety disorder, talking to a therapist can help. But if you think that OCD or an anxiety disorder may be the cause of your symptoms, then Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is a highly effective form of treatment that can change your relationship with intrusive thoughts and fears entirely.
The idea behind ERP therapy is that exposure to intrusive or obsessive thoughts (and the doubt and discomfort they bring) is the most effective way to get better, giving you the opportunity to actively interrupt the vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions or avoidance behavior. When you continually submit to the urge to do compulsions, it only strengthens your need to engage them again in the future. On the other hand, when you prevent yourself from engaging in your compulsions or avoiding your triggers, you teach yourself a new way to respond, developing a greater tolerance for the discomfort that comes from intrusive fears about demons, and reducing this discomfort over time.
Let’s say you’re someone with Harm OCD and excessively concerned about hurting your children when you’re alone with them. In ERP therapy, the goal is to prevent yourself from relying on compulsions—such as making sure your co-parent is always in the room with you. Instead of asking your partner to come home from work early, an ERP therapist may urge you to go through your normal routine while home alone with your kids for just a half hour to start. This process gradually teaches your brain that it can handle doubts you have about your children’s safety, and that your intrusive thoughts about harming them don’t have any impact on your ability to care for them. While it might sound too scary right now to confront your fears about demonic possession—especially since such fears can make you feel particularly out of control—rest assured that in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed, you’ll work with a therapist to gradually work through your fears and manage your symptoms.
A mental health professional who specializes in OCD will be able to make an accurate diagnosis, even in the case of highly misunderstood cases like fearing demonic possession. If you have or think you might have OCD or a related anxiety disorder, you can schedule a free call with the NOCD Care team to find out how ERP therapy can help you.
One last note: At NOCD, we understand how important one’s faith can be to them. You can be paired with a therapist who is not only trained in this evidence-based practice, but also understands and respects your own belief system.