Reassurance seeking can be a benign way to feel better or it can be a compulsion that cements one’s relationship with anxiety and OCD. It can feel like a hampster wheel thatyour client cannot get off. Compulsive reassurance seeking can wreak havoc in a relationship because people with anxiety and their loved ones keep getting tricked into believing, “If I just reassure them one more time, they will be able to let this go and feel better.”
I think of a few clients I have who have a particular safety person (usually a mom). They blow up this person’s phone texting and calling every time they experience doubt about something they did. One young man worries he will get sick in school. He texts his mom, “Do you think I’ll get sick?” and she texts back, “No you’ll be fine”. They do this at least 20 times a day.
I have another young mother who calls her mother throughout the day to ask questions related to doing the right thing for her baby. Her mother gets caught between providing her support or words of wisdom and getting stuck on a hamster wheel with her daughter’s OCD only for it to end with them both being very upset.
So how can you help without getting tricked into responding to anxiety’s never-ending questions? Psychoeducation is always the first place to start. Be sure your client understands their anxious brain and the loop that gets connected when they or someone they love seeks certainty through reassurance. Second, provide them with this pdf: Information Seeking vs. Reassurance Seeking. Discuss this information with both your client and the person they seek reassurance from (sometimes it is multiple people). Finally, help them decrease their reassurance seeking by identifying places of uncertainty and sitting with the anxiety without solving the problem. They may be able to delay the compulsion and engage in a valued behavior instead. Or maybe they can set a goal of how many times they will let themselves seek reassurance, decreasing the amount as they increase their ability to handle anxious feelings. It helps to practice this in session and out of session before they actually get triggered and hijacked by anxiety.
If anxiety ropes you into providing reassurance for your client, model what you have learned by sharing the pattern with your client, acknowledging how it feels not to be able to make your client feel better in that moment, set a clear boundary with anxiety (the next time we find ourselves dancing with reassurance, I will whistle a tune instead of giving reassurance), and finally sitting with the uncertainty of what will happen next.
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Compulsive reassurance seeking can wreak havoc in a relationship