When Reassurance Seeking Becomes Compulsive

We all find ourselves in situations in which we could do with a bit of reassurance. Maybe we are not sure if we are doing something right, or if we are doing it well enough. Or maybe we said something that we thought was hurtful to someone else and want to make sure our true meaning was understood.  In these situations, feelings such as self-doubt, guilt or stress are common, and it is natural to seek external validation to relieve the discomfort associated with those feeling.

An adaptive response is that once we have received reassurance, we feel better, and move on.  However, for some people moving on is not as straightforward. While reassurance may help them in the short-term, the relief does not last. In these situations, individuals can fall into a pattern of excessive reassurance seeking. They repeatedly seek reassurance from the people around them in order to gain relief from the uncomfortable feelings. However, the feelings quickly resurface, and the pattern is repeated.

What causes excessive reassurance seeking ?

Anxiety is believed to be the driver for excessive reassurance seeking. The cycle of anxiety posits that when a person experiences an uncomfortable feeling, they take an action to relieve it. This action reduces the discomfort which reinforces the belief that the action was effective. Thus, when an uncomfortable feeling arises again the action is repeated.  The danger inherent in this cycle is that the cause of anxiety is not addressed. So, in the case of reassurance seeking, instead of a person working to identify and improve their fear, insecurity or maladaptive belief, they continually seek external validation to provide a sense of relief. This strategy offers no long-term solution and can cause discomfort and distress to them and their loved ones.

Reassurance and OCD

Excessive reassurance seeking is linked to mental health conditions including depression, anxiety disorders – such as health anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Sufferers of OCD experience uncontrollable reoccurring thoughts (obsessions), often accompanied by compulsive behaviours that they repeat over and over. Such behaviours include checking, washing and, in some cases, reassurance seeking. In such cases, the reassurance seeking is a compulsive response to the distress caused by obsessions.

It is natural for the people who care about the individual to want to alleviate the person’s suffering by continuing to offer reassurance. However, not only is it not helping someone to address their anxiety or OCD, some researchers argue that it may worsen symptoms. For sufferers of OCD, the urge to seek reassurance returns quickly, and they may feel stuck or desperate without it leading to an increase in the frequency of seeking it.

There are effective evidence-based treatments for OCD, so if you or your loved suffers from excessive reassurance seeking, it is worth speaking to a mental health professional to find out the best course of action for you.

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