Growing up, my family held family home evenings (FHE) that felt more like listening to a general conference talk than the usual games and short lessons I saw in friends’ homes. And while I am now grateful that those lessons taught me the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I also recognize that as a young girl, I understood those things as a child.1
Over time, however, my mind morphed the principles I’d learned in FHE to crushing ideals I could never reach. I kept on as best I could, until two years ago when I knew going on was hopeless. At this point, I had served a mission, testified of Christ, and seen miracles. I was serving as the Relief Society president in a struggling ward where the bishop relied heavily on the presidency, and I had prayed and received clear answers that the Book of Mormon was true and Joseph Smith was a prophet—why then, I asked, am I miserable, weak, lonely, and convinced of my absolute spot in hell?
The answer came as a shock after my husband encouraged me to find professional help. With time, we learned that I experience a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called scrupulosity.2
Scrupulosity is an obsession with things religious or moral. I hadn’t ever considered that a mental illness could cause the spiritual paralysis I was experiencing. As I went through intensive treatment, I met many other people also struggling with this type of OCD and the common misconceptions about it.3 By better understanding OCD, I learned how to ask for support from family and friends, how to manage symptoms, and most importantly—how to finally experience joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
OCD: Not just washing your hands
When you hear someone say “OCD,” what first comes to mind? Over-washing your hands? Color-coordinating a bookshelf?
While these behaviors can be signs of OCD, these behaviors are not OCD.
OCD functions on intrusive thoughts (obsessions) leading to increased anxiety. To decrease the anxiety, people will perform physical or mental rituals (compulsions). OCD takes on many themes—perfectionism, organization, germs, and in my case, religion.
Just like many others, I thought OCD exhibited in mostly outward compulsions. However, as I learned OCD can happen entirely in your head, the anxiety I felt about reading scriptures correctly, not understanding the Spirit, or needing to over-apologize started to make sense.
For me, OCD looked like pleading with God, the night before receiving my endowment at nineteen, to know if I’d been forgiven for things from my childhood. Or confessing to my mission president for the same thing I’d confessed to multiple bishops at 12 and 16 years old just to “be sure.” Even the morning before my husband and I were married in the temple, I begged God to know if I was forgiven for those same things again. When I would pray, I’d stop and restart because I wasn’t on my knees or I said something without using “thee” and “thou.”
While OCD looks different for everyone, one similarity among us all is that the more we act on intrusive thoughts, the worse it gets. So, as much as my over repentance and re-praying seemed to calm anxiety momentarily, the rituals left me living the gospel with a relentless OCD god.
► You may also like: The form of OCD we may misdiagnose as faith crisis
Asking for Helpful Help
The loneliness I felt with my OCD god made it difficult for me to even know how to ask for help. However, after getting married, hiding my mental reality became impossible. With the support of my husband, we reached out to close friends and family for support. As they rallied around us, however, my symptoms intensified. We were confused—wasn’t this supposed to help? Little did we know that their well-intentioned encouragement only increased the anxiety fueling my OCD. To explain this, Dr. Debra McClendon describes “the problem [with OCD] is, when you obey the anxiety, it only relieves the anxiety temporarily, and then the anxiety comes back worse because you're actually reinforcing the anxiety cycle.”
This is why it’s important to understand how OCD functions and then explain it to those supporting you. You will need to hear the opposite of what your OCD (and you) want to be told to stop reinforcing your anxiety cycle. For example, if you were to share concerns about “not doing enough,” your friend or family member may instinctively want to reassure you that you are doing great, but what you really need to hear is, “Yeah, you might not be doing enough.” While this sounds ironic, and even discouraging, at first, for someone with OCD this is exactly what they need—someone to reply with uncertainty, not reassurances.
Managing Symptoms: Exposure Therapy
In similar irony, managing OCD symptoms follows the same style as the support you need. Since OCD thrives on a need for certainty, the best treatment is to habituate your brain to uncertainty. This happens through exposure therapy, which literally puts your anxieties to the test, putting you as close to your fears as possible to habituate your brain to the fear, rather than reacting to it with a compulsion.
To explain this, let’s consider someone with mysophobia (OCD focused on a fear of germs). Those with this type of OCD commonly avoid touching door handles because they intensely fear germs. If they do touch a door handle, they will wash their hands compulsively to decrease their anxiety. An effective exposure for them would be to touch a door handle and then not wash their hands to test out if their fear of getting sick is real. As they expose their brain to this fear over and over again, they will experience less anxiety about getting sick from door handles.
In a recent podcast, Dr. Debra McClendon explains why exposure therapy is best for those with OCD and anxiety disorders, and particularly scrupulosity.4 For my scrupulosity, I started with simple exposures, such as responding to friends without apologizing or not repeating prayers. As I exposed my brain to my fear of not forgiving enough or not saying prayers correctly, a slow, consistent release from my OCD god came. Just like someone with mysophobia touching door handles and not washing their hands will have less and less anxiety, I learned I could do that too for my own OCD.
Exposure therapy took immense courage, and it still does as I continue exposures each day on my own. But it’s given me skills to manage scrupulosity and start to fully experience a gospel life.
The Joy of Gospel Living
The first time I truly understood the “joy of repenting” was just a few months ago. Because of the benefits of exposure therapy, I had really started praying again and could feel my fear of living the gospel turning to faith. After a simple disagreement with my spouse, that budding faith encouraged me to pray for forgiveness. I laid in my bed and started to talk simply with Heavenly Father, asking for help and forgiveness. I was expecting similar feelings of guilt and shame. Instead, I started to feel peace and hope.
I paused—almost in shock—taking in the moment.
Was this the joy I’d heard about for so long?
The peaceful assurance that came confirmed it. For the first time, in a long time, I felt freed “from the enemy which had me bound.”5
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has emphatically said, “Keep trying. There is hope and happiness ahead.”6 I am a witness to that prophetic promise. At times, scrupulosity has been my spiritual, emotional, and mental paralysis that kept me from understanding there is a loving God.
But as I kept trying, hope did come. By understanding my OCD thought cycles, learning what support to ask for, and how to take control through exposure therapy—I now understand as an adult how to live those FHE principles I learned long ago and experience the joy of gospel living.
Whitney Vogrinec is a senior at Brigham Young University. She and her husband anxiously await graduation and the arrival of their first child. Outside of school and family time, you’ll find her connecting with people over lunch or a good diet coke.
- See 1 Corinthians 13:11; 14:20
- McClendon, D. T. (2019, September). "Understanding scrupulosity (religious OCD)," Young Adult Weekly.
- Baker, D. (2019, September). "My battle with religious OCD," Young Adult Weekly.
- Jones, M. (2020, July 15). "Scrupulosity—Obsessive-Compulsive Anxiety you may mistake as a faith crisis," LDS Living.
- See Joseph Smith History 1:14–17
- Holland, J. R. (2016). "Tomorrow the Lord will Do Wonders among You," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.