“Am I Possessed by a Demon?”

You may be wondering why a psychologist is writing about demonic possession. If so, you may be surprised to learn that, in my work as an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) specialist, it is not uncommon for me to be asked by patients (or potential patients) if they might possibly be possessed. Yes, it is true. Healthy and, by all appearances, rationale people ask me this question. And it doesn’t take me by surprise.

“Wait,” you wonder, “what does working with OCD have to do with demons? Isn’t OCD where people like stuff neat and orderly, or where they check the stove over and over again?”

I’ll explain

Explaining OCD

Let’s start with a quick overview of OCD. Contrary to popular belief, OCD is not about cleanliness, orderliness, or repeatedly checking. OCD is about a person having unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, and/or impulses that will not go away – usually despite their best efforts. Those thoughts, images, and impulses are called obsessions and they usually create quite a bit of distress or discomfort for the person experiencing them. Some possible obsessions might be thoughts of being contaminated, images of doing something harmful to oneself or others, impulses to say curse words, or fears of having left an appliance on or a door unlocked.

Now, when those obsessions create discomfort or distress, the person tries to find a way of making those yucky feelings go away. This is where compulsions come in. Compulsions are those “best efforts” I mentioned above; they are physical or mental actions a person takes to try to get relief. Possible compulsions might include avoiding potential sources of contamination, trying to think of something besides the disturbing content, repeatedly checking that one did not make a mistake, or mentally reviewing and reassuring oneself that one did not and will not act. Performing these actions often brings about relief – temporary relief, until the obsession woefully comes back again.

In summary, OCD has two parts – obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions bring anxiety and discomfort UP. Compulsions bring anxiety and discomfort temporarily DOWN.

Wait, What About the Possession?

Wasn’t this a post about demonic possession?  Why are you sharing about OCD?

Sometimes OCD obsessions take the form of intrusive thoughts, images, or urges of harming others, such as loved ones. Let’s take a look at a possible scenario:

Sandra is a thirty something devoted mother and wife. One day, while sitting with her family, she imagines herself strangling the child closest to her with the power cord that is nearby. This image, seemingly from out of nowhere, shocks and disturbs her. “Where did that thought come from?” she wonders. She tries to force it out of her head and that seems to work until it comes creeping back in moments later. Now, even more upset, because the image seems so real, she excuses herself from the room. “What is this all about?” she silently asks herself. “This is nothing like me. I love my children. Why on Earth would I be thinking this?” She calms herself down by reminding herself that she is a good, caring mother. She returns to her family and the image leaves her alone for the night. The next day, as she helps the children with their homework and prepares the evening meal, she has a fleeting glimpse of smashing one of the children with the cast iron skillet. Terrified, she calls for her husband to stay in the room and help the children while she tries to cook and to compose herself. On subsequent days, despite trying hard to keep them out of her head, the thoughts and images only come more frequently. To protect them, Sandra never allows herself to be in a room alone with her children.

What’s happening here? Well, in this example, Sandra is having obsessions about harming her children. They cause her to feel incredibly uneasy because they are counter to her valued role of loving parent. So what does Sandra do? She removes herself from the situation, she reminds herself she’s a good parent, she tries to force the thoughts away, and she brings others into the room so she can be sure her children will be protected. In short, she does a number of compulsionsDespite the compulsions bringing some temporary relief, they never really address the thoughts and images and her distress grows and grows.

Now, OCD is a nasty trickster. It generally targets the things a person holds dearest. In our example, Sandra cares deeply about her children and she values being a loving parent. When a person finds their deepest values targeted, they may begin to question what this means about them. They may even question how such horrific thoughts could come about…and therein enters the rationalization by the sufferer (or others) that it must be demons.

Ah, Now the Demons

Imagine you are being tormented by some of the worst thoughts and images that could ever be conjured up (some of you may not need to imagine; you may be experiencing them already, which is why you may be reading this). These thoughts and images seem like something that you, the you you know, could never dream up in a lifetime. Yet, here they are…and they are bombarding your every day. You are living a nightmare. Stressed and overwhelmed, you search for an answer. Or, perhaps, someone jokingly suggests the answer. Demonic possession. These aren’t your thoughts at all. You’ve been inhabited by an evil presence. Preposterous as you might have thought it in another time and place, it seems just possible.

Let’s take a look back at Sandra:

Tormented by her horrible thoughts, Sandra searches for an explanation and stumbles upon an article about demonic possession. “Demons?” she wonders. “Could it be?” Although it sounds somewhat absurd, a little fear plants itself. “Maybe I am possessed by a demon.” She puts the frightful thought out of her head. Yet, the next day, as she wrestles with images of harming her children, a voice in her mind wonders, “Could I be possessed?” That evening, tormented by both fears she will harm her children and the possibility of possession, she touches a crucifix to her forehead, just to see if it burns. It doesn’t. She feels a little silly, but also relieved…for now.

In Sandra’s case, she’s stumbled on demonic possession as as possible reason for the horrific images and thoughts she’s been having. She is definitely not alone. As people search to understand why they are tormented, no possibility may seem too far-fetched. Sandra now has two obsessions, though. One is fear she will harm her children. The new one is that she is possessed by a demon. And her compulsions have a new realm, as well. She begins to seek certainty that she is not possessed – and bringing the crucifix to her forehead is only the beginning. All of this because of OCD. No demons at all.

So It’s Not Demons. What Can Be Done?

OCD is not a demon (in the traditional sense) and is treatable. The treatments shown to be most beneficial are Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT – specifically a form of CBT known as Exposure and Response Prevention {ERP}), medication, or a combination of both. Here, I will explain just a little bit about therapy and how it might apply in Sandra’s case.

In ERP therapy, a person is educated about OCD and learns how the things they have been doing to try to cope with their fears are actually growing the problem. Then, together with their therapist, they learn to gradually stand up to their fears without doing their compulsions. Gradually, the sufferer learns to manage discomfort and not to let it direct their lives.

Here’s how it might look with Sandra. After educating her about OCD, Sandra’s therapist would help Sandra identify each of her obsessions and her compulsions. Together, they would create experiments in which Sandra would be in the presence of the thoughts that have been frightening her without doing her compulsions. For example, she might imagine being in the room with her children while thinking her harmful thoughts. At another point, she might practice actually being in the room with her children and the thoughts and not leaving while another adult is in the room. Later, she might practice being in the room alone with her children while purposely thinking the thoughts.

Now these practice sessions would address the intrusive thoughts about harming her children. The fear that she is possessed by a demon would also need to be addressed – often simultaneously. Sandra would practice allowing the thought that she is possessed by a demon to be in her head while eliminating the compulsions of wrestling the thoughts away or checking for signs that she may/may not be possessed.

While it may seem a little scary standing up to these fears, it is done at a pace that patient and therapist agree on together – one that allows for mastery on the sufferer’s own terms. I like to think of the process as one of learning to be brave – of getting comfortable being uncomfortable. In it, the person with OCD learns skills that allow them to stand up to the disorder no matter what it may dish out in the present or the future. As for OCD, while it may try to trick folks into believing in demonic possession, learning the facts and the skills is a far less frightening reality.

For more information on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:

  • International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd


Santa Clarita Grieves (Route 91) Event

I recently had the opportunity to speak and meet with community members at the Child & Family Center in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting. Santa Clarita residents were affected in many ways and the event was held to assist those affected, directly and indirectly, by the shooting. I was also interviewed by our local radio station, KHTS (see video). It was an honor to participate.

“Bravery is not…

“Bravery is not a feeling; bravery is how you behave when you are scared. You are among the bravest people I know.” Jonathan Grayson, PhD

I’m currently reading Dr. Grayson’s book, “Freedom From Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Personalized Recovery Program for Living with Uncertainty.”  These words could not reflect my sentiments more.

No, That’s Not a Normal Part of Child Development


Sometimes, I wish my head could keep up with my conversations – that I had the right response at the right moment.   A little while ago someone who rarely asks me about my work asked how my practice was going.  I responded by mentioning how many young boys and girls with some very big fears had recently been brought by their parents for treatment.  Some, I noted, were having full blown panic attacks.

Now I was fairly certain my conversation partner would say something like, “Wow.  What do you do in situations like that?” or perhaps, “It’s good that they are getting help now.”  Instead, what I got was, “Parents can be so over-reactive.  They take a normal part of child development and turn it into a problem.  If they would just leave it alone, it would pass.”

This is where my spinning head could not keep up.  In part, my professional ego was a little bruised (“Don’t you think I can tell the difference between a child who’s going through a normal phase and one who is truly suffering?” ).  At the same time I was feeling a little defensive about the parents who had the courage and the sensitivity to bring their child for a consultation.  Frankly, I think it takes a lot of guts to admit that something is going on with your child and to reach out for help.

Yes, sometimes parents do overreact about something that is a childhood phase.  They love their kids.  They want to see them happy and healthy.  It’s part of what they do.  At the same time, too often children’s and teens’ emotional issues are overlooked or not attended to.  According to the Child Mind Institute[i], more than 15 million children in the U.S. have diagnosable mental health or learning disorders, yet less than half of them will actually get help.  In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)[ii] notes that the results of a large national survey indicate that approximately 8 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder.  Their symptoms appeared around age 6.  However, less than one-fifth of these teens ever received mental health care.

What’s sad and concerning about this is the loss of potential and the unnecessary suffering – for both parents and kids.  There are effective treatments available that can help get these kids back on track and the whole family functioning better.  But how does a parent know when something is normal childhood development and when it is time to seek help?

Anxiety is a normal part of life for us all.  For a child, there are certain worries and fears we can expect at different ages.  For example, very young children may be afraid of strangers, the dark, imaginary monsters, costumes, being separated from parents and getting hurt.  Older children may worry about school performance or making friends.  If we provide reassurance and are supportive as children learn to deal with these things, in most cases they will eventually resolve.  When a fear or worry persists, creates great distress for the child and interferes with the child’s functioning at home, school or with friends it has crossed over to becoming a problem.  This is when it is time to seek help.

But when you seek help aren’t you just pandering to the child’s fears and making them an unnecessary focus?  Well, the truth is that when adult anxiety sufferers are asked about the history of their symptoms, a high percentage of them actually have symptoms dating back to childhood.  Their symptoms did not go away .   So treating children for anxiety may not only help the child from spending needless time suffering, but may help prevent anxiety disorders in adults as well.

Getting back to my conversation, if my head had been working at the proper speed, I would have said something along these lines:

“At times, you are correct, we as parents do overreact, but we also frequently under-react. Actually what’s going on with these kids isn’t part of normal child development and these parents aren’t over-reactive at all.  I admire them.  They recognized that their children were suffering and that this was not going to go away on its own.  They were forward thinking enough to reach out and get help.  Hopefully we will be able to prevent a lot of suffering now and in the future.”

I can’t make time stand still and give a well-composed answer.  For now, at least I am on the record.  Children with anxiety disorders deserve their suffering to be recognized and they deserve the opportunity to get better.  Bravo to the parents who have the courage to reach out.


[i] “Why Speak Up.”  Speak Up for Kids: Child Mind Institute.  Child Mind Institute. Web. 16 July, 2013.  <http://speakup.childmind.org/why_speak_up/&gt;.
[ii] “Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents (Fact Sheet).”  National Institute of Mental Health.  National Institute of Mental Health.  Web. 16 July, 2013. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders-in-children-and-adolescents/index.shtml.

An Ending at the Beginning

As I write what is to be the first blog entry of my new site, I find myself compelled to share a story about an ending.  Not too long ago a young patient who had struggled with anxiety came in for session full of energy, family in tow.  I sat ready to set an agenda for the day’s session.  Instead, my patient told me with a smile to sit back, watch and listen.  So all of us sat back in my office and were treated to a 20 minute, one-person show (complete with props) about how to defeat the “Worry Monster.”

In case you’re wondering, the Worry Monster is a generic term some therapists use to helpIMG_1687 younger patients conceptualize their anxiety.  We talk about anxiety or worry like it’s a bully who keeps coming by to boss you around.  Defeating the Worry Monster means learning how to boss back and put him (or her) into his place.  Many of my young patients quickly latch onto this concept and delight in doing some bossing around of their own.

So…back to the session.  This play was so thorough, so complete in its understanding of anxiety, its description of how to overcome it and the breadth of tools it employed to be victorious that I was completely giddy.  I immediately congratulated my patient, and the whole family, on becoming so well informed and on understanding how to implement that knowledge.  What I knew, upon seeing this play, was that we were at the beginning of the end of treatment.

This was not the first time that I’ve been schooled by a patient in the ways of dealing with anxiety.  Hopefully, it will not be the last.  What it represents for me is what treatment is all about – getting patients to the point where they don’t need to be seeing me regularly anymore.  No matter what goal treatment starts with, there is one underlying goal that is common among the people I treat – to get their situation to the point where they intrinsically know how to respond to potential struggles and they no longer need me in order to cope well.  When I am working with anxiety, parents and patients often ask me how we will know when it is time to stop treatment.  One of the things I tell them is:  “We will know it’s time to stop treatment when you (or your child) start coming in and telling me how to intervene, and you actually are able to go ahead and successfully use the interventions you come up with.”

When I work with anxiety, a good deal of what I do is to teach.  I work to educate children and adults about what anxiety is, what maintains it and what puts it in its place and makes it manageable.  I find that when people have a way to understand their struggles, a frame to put it in, that treatment makes much more sense.  Even my youngest patients can understand anxiety when I put it in their terms.  When they understand, they feel more powerful…and they delight in taking charge of their lives.

When my young patient arrived for treatment and taught ME how to deal with anxiety, I knew we were at the beginning of the end of treatment.  I’m not sure who was more delighted at this prospect – me or patient and family.  We had strived together to get to this point.  The payoff was a child who had emerged from fear, who felt powerful instead of powerless and who felt ready to take on what anxiety might dispatch.  I think that this experience, and others like it, is what I bring into the beginning of treatment with each new patient.  I bring the belief that with each new beginning, each first step into treatment for people who are struggling with fear and worry, there is hope for a more empowered ending.  And it is my honor to be told to sit back, watch and listen as they move forward to live their lives.