Talking OCD & Faith with Dr. Jan Weiner

How does OCD impact a person's ability to maintain their religion or faith?

Key Takeaways:
  • Dr. Jan Weiner is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Murray Hill neighborhood of New York City.
  • In this video, she discusses the relationship between OCD and faith. For more info on Dr. Weiner, please visit:
  • OCD3 is a web series that brings professional perspectives to the OCD community so sufferers can make healthy decisions and lead better lives.

Read the full transcript below:

1) What are common intrusive thoughts related to faith?

Intrusive thoughts come in a wide variety of themes. For people with faith based or religious OCD, their intrusive thoughts can be anything from sex acts with religious figures, concerns about praying the right way, or having to repeat prayers until they’re done in a specific manner. Religion tends to involve rituals. For people with OCD, the obsession is often, “did I do that ritual right?” Some other religious intrusive thoughts might relate to sexuality or your relationship with God. The brain grabs hold of these flagged and sensitive thoughts, and turns them into obsessions.

2) How can therapy and faith work together?

Often what we do in therapy, is try to understand one’s faith, the perspective they’re coming from, how important their faith is, and why they don’t want to have these moralistic obsessions. If someone is concerned that exposure therapy gets in the way of their faith, I will often bring a pastor or rabbi into the conversation to make sure everyone is on the same page in regards to what the person is allowed to do for therapy in tandem with their specific religious practices.

In many types of orthodoxy, people of faith put a heightened emotional importance on having a higher moral thought process, and are directed by their faith on what they should and shouldn’t think. If you have any underlying OCD, that’s going to directly conflict with the importance placed on having those moral thoughts. The OCD is going to play with that and bring forward all the things you feel like you shouldn’t be thinking. If I told you not to think about a pink elephant, what’s the first image that pops into your head? It’s that pink elephant. The more I tell you not to think about that pink elephant, the more you’ll focus on it. So what happens with these negative intrusive thoughts, is that the more one is told not to think about them, the greater the relevance their OCD will place on them. It is often hard for a person of faith to reconcile that obsessive thinking in regards to who they are and what value system they uphold. The key is that we don’t have control over our brains, and while what comes in and out may directly conflict with the standards you’ve set for yourself and religious practices, it holds no bearing on your value as a person. When I work with someone of faith, I’m making the differential that I’m treating their OCD, which is separate from their faith or religious practices. While things I may be telling you might overlap or conflict with that idea, religion and OCD are completely separate things.

A major part of treatment in that regard, is bringing down the higher moralistic thinking pattern a person of faith may be imposing on themselves. People frequently get stuck on something like, “I shouldn’t be thinking this, this is wrong”, because it contradicts the moral standard they’ve set out to attain. What I often try to do is not assign meaning to those intrusive thoughts.

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