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Recognizing the difference between scrupulosity and the Spirit may help you feel God’s light

Mental health Psychologist sitting and touch hand
Understanding the difference between scrupulosity and anxiety may open up your communication with heaven.
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Too often, struggles with mental health—like depression, anxiety, and OCD—interfere with faithful Saints’ ability to feel the Spirit and God’s love. Debra Theobald McClendon’s book Freedom from Scrupulosity discusses at length the causes, form, and treatment of religious OCD—scrupulosity—and the anxiety that lies at its core. The information presented in this excerpt from the book is in no way a complete representation of the book’s wide capability to help readers fully address their struggles with scrupulosity and anxiety. Rather, it presents a few of the author’s thoughtful insights that can apply to everyone—even if we don’t struggle with severe anxiety or scrupulosity.

In this excerpt, you’ll read a few condensed passages from the book’s introduction and the first two chapters about how scrupulosity becomes confused with spiritual promptings and how to recognize the good from the bad. You may even find the hope you need to be freed from clouds of anxiety and find full connection to God’s love and the Spirit.

Are you obsessively worried about your worthiness before God? Is your ability to feel peace disrupted by anxiety and worry about doing things right or about having done some things wrong? Is your life held hostage by anxiety over religious or moral issues? Do you excessively pray or perform religious rituals to try to assuage uncomfortable feelings? Do you more than frequently seek reassurance from others? Or do you feel you are handling your life pretty well except you can’t get over that “one thing” you did? These feelings often create spiritual torment in the lives of otherwise dedicated, conscientious people.

Most people are surprised to learn that rather than being legitimate spiritual promptings, these anxious thoughts and processes are facets of a particular form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called scrupulosity. “Scrupulosity is a psychological disorder primarily characterized by pathological guilt or obsession associated with moral or religious issues that is often accompanied by compulsive moral or religious observance and is highly distressing and maladaptive.”1

Yes, the craziness that is happening to you is a real thing—it has a name and a treatment! And you are not the only one. One client reflected on the beginning of her mental health journey: “I just felt crazy and I didn’t want to explain my thoughts [to anyone].” Another client said: “I didn’t even know what was happening to me. I knew I was anxious, and I knew I confessed a lot to my wife to try and relieve the anxiety I felt, but I had no idea what was going on with me even though I could barely function.”2 Maybe, like these people, you feel crazy and don’t know what is going on with you. Maybe you just can’t understand why the things you are trying to do to help yourself aren’t helping. Maybe you are scared to even know.

Scrupulosity is a devastating disorder. Sufferers often experience deep fear and even terror when facing what they believe will be the loss of all they believe in, their family, and salvation for eternity because of what they perceive to be their own failings. Although the content of the obsessions in scrupulosity is religious or moral in nature, it is not a religious, spiritual, or moral problem at its core. Scrupulosity is not caused by one’s religious denomination or one’s personal worthiness, but rather is an anxiety problem driven by poorly regulated, very high, toxic anxiety. It is an affliction.

The people who struggle with scrupulosity are amazing, valiant individuals with a dedicated love of God and a strong desire to live good lives in accordance with His will. Yet they are tormented with paralyzing fear. Their problems do not stem from a moral failing or a lack of faith. The core of scrupulosity lies in the destructive process of toxic anxiety. …

Anxiety Is Normative and Can Be Helpful

Anxiety is ubiquitous, and it lies at the core of scrupulosity. Anxiety is a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension about something that is planned or might happen in everyday situations. It may feel like worry, fear, or dread. The symptoms of anxiety often include nervousness, difficulty concentrating, nausea, rapid heartbeat, panic, muscle tension, sleeping problems, and so on. The uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety come to you to help you prepare for future danger, although anxiety can also be generated when ruminating, or thinking obsessively, about past experiences.

Anxiety is a normal emotion—just like happiness, joy, anger, grief, or sadness. Since anxiety is an uncomfortable emotion, you might be tempted to try to make a therapeutic goal to get rid of your anxiety. Although high levels of anxiety are miserable and damaging to one’s life, moderate levels of anxiety can be well tolerated and are actually adaptive, helping to improve our performance—so don’t try to get rid of all of it. We are benefitted by a healthy dose of anxiety in our lives! Anxiety helps us to anticipate and prepare by focusing our attention on only what is necessary.

Spend a moment to ponder how anxiety may have helped you in the past. If you think about presentations, lessons, talks, or sermons in church that you have given, can you see how some concern anticipating the event blessed you to give a better presentation? A moderate level of anxiety that motivates you to prepare more thoroughly is helpful in performing at an optimal level. …

▶ You may also: 5 steps to calm your religious anxieties and find emotional freedom

Anxiety and the Spirit Tend to Communicate Differently

This moderate, adaptive level of anxiety can help you spiritually. It can motivate you to more conscientiously study doctrines of your religious faith, invite the Holy Spirit into your heart, seek answers to your questions, or pursue additional calming and soothing in your life. At a low or moderate anxiety level, it may be very easy to discern God’s presence and influence.

If anxiety gets too high, however, it can take over your life. This may cause your spiritual sensitivities to go offline.

When your anxiety is poorly regulated—or out of control—it tends to be difficult to discern the Spirit’s promptings. President Boyd K. Packer said, “Our physical body is the instrument of our spirit. It houses delicate physical senses which have to do with spiritual communication.” Anxiety disrupts that delicate physical balance.

The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth and communicates goodness and light. The Apostle Paul wrote, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” These spiritual feelings contribute to an overall sense of “goodness and righteousness and truth.”3 He also wrote in his second epistle to Timothy, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

The Spirit tends to communicate in nuanced ways. The scriptures refer to the Spirit as the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). In the Book of Mormon we read, “And it came to pass when they heard this voice [from heaven], and beheld that it was not a voice of thunder, neither was it a voice of a great tumultuous noise, but behold, it was a still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper, and it did pierce even to the very soul” (Helaman 5:30) And “they heard a voice as if it came out of heaven; . . . it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center” (3 Nephi 11:3). Elder David A. Bednar taught, “The Spirit of the Lord usually communicates with us in ways that are quiet, delicate, and subtle.”4 And Elder Dale G. Renlund taught: “The scriptures teach that the voice of the Holy Ghost is mild and still, like a whisper—not loud or noisy; it is simple, quiet, and plain; it can be piercing and burning; it affects both mind and heart; it brings peace, joy, and hope—not fear, anxiety, and worry; it invites us to do good—not evil; and it is enlightening and delicious—not mystifying.”

Some Latter-day Saint church leaders have described communication from the Spirit as a whisper. President Boyd K. Packer taught, “The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all. . . . Occasionally it will press just firmly enough for us to pay heed. But most of the time, if we do not heed the gentle feeling, the Spirit will withdraw and wait until we come seeking and listening.” This is a critical point because toxic anxiety is not calm, quiet, or peaceful. It does not whisper—it is loud and tumultuous! …

Understanding the Differences between Anxiety and the Spirit Is Critical

When I meet a new client, discussions about the differences between anxiety and the Spirit occur in early sessions. In a calm, rational moment talking with me in session, most clients can identify how they feel when their anxiety is triggered and how they feel when they know the Holy Spirit is present. But in the moment of an anxiety surge, their understanding seems to melt away. It almost never occurs to them that in their confusion and chaos, they are not receiving promptings from the Holy Spirit. One client, a married woman in her late 60s, reflected on what she was learning about anxiety and the Spirit through her own therapy process: “If the Spirit is pushing you to repent, it is not accompanied by fear. But OCD brings fear, tons of it. I know it is the OCD because there is no love in it.”

Some people struggling with high anxiety and scrupulosity, however, are not able to easily articulate how they feel when anxiety is present in contrast to how they feel when the Spirit is present. Sometimes they get sensations mixed up. The benefit of clarifying the communication patterns of anxiety and the Spirit is one of grounding. If you are having an experience and are struggling to understand it, you can step back for a moment and hearken back to this grounding principle.

One client, a single female in her late 20s, spoke of something she learned through her therapy process by referencing this concept: “I am harsh on myself. Yet I am getting very subtle [promptings] on how to change. It is not this overwhelming harshness. … The Spirit is kind in correction; the anxiety is harsh and expects immediate correction. God’s correction is so much more soft. Just try a little better tomorrow.”

Freedom from Scrupulosity: Reclaiming Your Religious Experience

This book is a comprehensive examination of religious scrupulosity, with a focus on treatment. In part 1, the author describes basics about anxiety, OCD, and scrupulosity and how each is related and interconnected. Part 2 explores scrupulosity on a deeper level, including what researchers have learned about scrupulosity. In part 3, McClendon discusses treatment considerations and presents a gold-standard, evidence-based approach to treatment. The interventions described can serve as a stand-alone self-help treatment for scrupulosity or as an adjunct to working with a mental health professional.


  1. Miller, C. H., & Hedges, D. W. (2008). Scrupulosity disorder: An overview and introductory analysis. Journal of Anxiety Disorders22(6), 1042.
  2. Client story, used with permission. This quotation and all other quoted material from my clients are used with permission.
  3. Ephesians 5:9.
  4. Bednar, D. A. (2021). The Spirit of Revelation. Deseret Book, 11.
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