“Am I Okay?”: Reassurance Seeking. What is it and why is it so hard to stop?

by David Ferenciak, LPC

Reassurance seeking, a behavior or mental act aimed to clarify or verify something that is typically already known, emerges through an inability to tolerate uncertainty. It is particularly significant in obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it can be found throughout each of the anxiety disorders. ‘Assurance’ is enough to satisfy many people, but the anxious mind is not easily satisfied. As one seeks out certainty – doubt begins to emerge again and the demand for ‘re-Assurance’ increases.
Maybe you know a friend or an acquaintance, or perhaps it is yourself, who repetitively asks questions that are aimed to provide relief or comfort. Examples of reassuring questions may include: Will everything be okay? Are you sure that I locked the door? Did I do the right thing? Are you sure I did not offend you? The amount of energy that someone can invest in obtaining certainty can be high, and it is not uncommon for someone with significant anxiety to feel defeated following their attempts to find reassurance.
In more severe cases, many characterize reassurance seeking as being almost an addiction, in which once an individual begins the process of confirming it can be difficult to stop. The reason why it can be so hard to resist reassurance seeking is due to the immediate gratification that is obtained in the moment. The sensation of ‘now I know for sure..’ is very alluring. However, just like an addiction, this satisfaction begins to lose its quality over time, propelling the person to seek out more certainty. Depending on the severity of anxiety, an individual may only be satisfied with a reassuring answer for a matter of minutes or even seconds, before they are inclined to repeat the question or action once again. Due to the fact that this repetition can sound rather bizarre to others, the reassurance seeking individual may begin attempting to conceal or hide their questions by altering it in some way.
There are various forms of reassurance seeking that one must be aware of in order to recognize and begin eliminating this self-defeating behavior. The most obvious of such forms is when an individual seeks out a sense of reassurance from others. This person could be an authority figure, a caregiver, or perhaps simply an acquaintance who is perceived to have the knowledge to provide an answer. Another form of reassurance is that of self-reassurance, which is commonly performed through checking behaviors or mental acts. For instance, a woman with OCD may physically check the lock repeatedly on her front door, seeking the reassurance that the door is indeed locked. Furthermore, an example of a mental act that serves as reassurance can be found in social phobia. The person who is socially anxious may have a conversation with another individual, and afterwards replay the interaction in their mind, searching for assurance that they said the ‘right’ things.

How to manage reassurance seeking?

  1. It is important that family members and those closest to the individual are aware of the impact that reassurance has on anxiety. As reassurance seeking becomes compulsive or excessive, it is important that others resist providing answers that serve as reassurance. This can obviously be rather challenging, as the desire to reduce their loved ones discomfort immediately can be strong. You must consider at this time that by providing reassurance, you are helping to maintain the person’s anxiety in the long term. By not giving reassurance, you are helping the individual learn to cope with the anxiety and become independent.
  2. Sometimes reassurance can be concealed in a way that makes it difficult for the person asking the question to even recognize it. Therefore, when you are unsure if it is reassurance, ask yourself if the goal of the question/behavior is to only eliminate anxiety or uncertainty. If yes, you now have an opportunity to begin practicing tolerating the discomfort mindfully.
  3. Practice seeking out uncertainty in your life, while making the decision to not try to control or influence any aspect of the situation. As you begin to realize just how uncertain life is, a state of acceptance will begin to emerge.
  4. Developing your ability to stay fully present will also help you to manage reassurance seeking. Since the focus of reassurance is typically in regards to ‘what if’ scenarios, it is essential that you practice moment to moment awareness – which can help you see reality more clearly.
  5. Consistency. Whether in relation to not giving reassurance to another person, or your own commitment to not seek out reassurance – it is extremely important that you are consistent in your practice. Remaining steadfast as you continue toward reclaiming your life will take patience, but that patience leads to freedom from anxiety.
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