Information vs. Reassurance in Anxiety and OCD

Elizabeth Spencer

Information seeking or reassurance seeking – why is it important to distinguish one from the other? In my practice, I think of some clients I have seen recently:

• A 25-year-old who asks all her friends and her boss if she should go back to grad school
• A child who checks his mom’s cell phone 10 times an hour to see if it might storm
• An adult with scrupulosity OCD wants to know if he is going to hell
• A mother wants to know if it is reasonable that she does not run the dishwasher at night because she fears it will burn the house down with her children inside

As CBT therapists working with clients with anxiety and OCD, I hear these types of questions every day, and I get why. We all want to know things for sure. But is it possible to know for sure?

Today I submitted an application I have worked on for weeks that included two parts and 17 supporting documents. I hit send on the document and experienced five minutes of relief – it’s done! Then I thought, “what if I didn’t send in the right attachments?” Or “what if I didn’t fill the application correctly?” If I didn’t have my knowledge of anxiety the most natural solution would have been to double check myself, or to ask someone to reassure me, both of which would have provided instant relief — but it would have been temporary. Even if I check, I might miss something. And if I ask for reassurance, the person doesn’t really know if I did it correctly. Instead, I said to myself, “hello anxiety. For sure I might have done it wrong. This is a great chance to mess things up. Thanks for pointing it out. Anything else to add?”

I welcome uncertainty into my life, and look for opportunities to do new things, like the hike up the cliff I wrote about in an earlier blog. Filling out this long application was one more opportunity to be uncertain and to do it anyway.

Now I might have needed information about the application, just like my client might have needed information about the grad school program she was interested in. However, information seeking is specific, while most reassurance seeking is driven by unanswerable questions. Can anyone really tell that child it won’t storm? Or the man if he is going to hell? Or the mother that the dishwasher won’t burn down the house? We might know that things are unlikely, but we don’t know for SURE.

Work on accepting uncertainty yourself, and help you clients by sharing the form about information seekers vs. reassurance seekers from the Anxiety Disorder Center, St. Louis Behavioral Medical Institute.

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