Addressing Reassurance Seeking

What is Reassurance Seeking?

As adults we have learned lots of things in growing up. This information has been helpful in our understanding of how things work, what is safe versus dangerous, what we do and do not need to be responsible for, and more. For example, we learn that major illnesses like Cancer or Diabetes are not contagious, or that air travel is safer than travel by car, and that you alone are not responsible for the wellbeing of your entire family. However, for some individuals this knowledge is insufficient; they also want reassurance and comfort that feared outcomes will not occur. Furthermore, they’re dissatisfied with simple reassurances, such as “You’re fine. The doctor said you’re healthy,” and seem to need unending examples, promises, and guarantees. This is called reassurance seeking.    

Listening in on Reassurance Seeking…

  • “Are you sure you locked all the doors? When exactly? Even the back door? What about the upstairs windows?”
  • “Tell me again that it can’t make me sick! Please. Are you sure? How do you know?”
  • “Did you wash your hands before you cooked dinner? How many pumps of soap?”
  • Calling a spouse, partner, or family member over and over again on the phone to make sure they’re okay, and when they do not pick up, sending continual text messages until they respond.
  • Asking a co-worker to check your report for the 5th time before you hand it in to your boss, just to be sure its perfect.
  • Reviewing and re-reviewing with friends how the conversation went to ensure no mistakes were made.

If you are the spouse, partner, family member or friend of someone who worries a lot and seeks reassurance, you already know that giving reassurance over and over again is not only exhausting but also doesn’t work. And if you are the person who seeks reassurance, you also know deep down it doesn’t work because you have to keep getting more and more, no matter how much you are given. And it’s exhausting for you too! Reassurance provision is like pouring water through a net; the water simply leaks out and you are left with an empty net. Obviously pouring more water in is not the solution, but what is? Anxiety experts have determined 2 methods that can work for many individuals: 1) the all-at-once method; and 2) the gradual method.

ALL-AT-ONCE:

This method is also known as the “cold turkey” route. This works best for reassurance seeking that has not been occurring for long or only occurs in a few small areas. It can help if you imagine that your anxiety is like a bully bossing you around and growing stronger by making you seek all this reassurance, only to demand more the next day, and the next, and so on. You and your loved ones are being held hostage by your anxiety’s need to get reassurance. So the best way to reduce your anxiety’s power is by eliminating reassurance once and for all. Cold turkey. No exceptions. Set a date for yourself when you will start, and on that day remind yourself no more reassurance! You can stick post-it notes or send yourself a text message to help prompt you. And don’t forget to tell your spouse, partner, family or friend about your plan, and ask that they help by no longer answering your worry questions. You might say the following:

“I’m tired of my anxiety making me ask you for reassurance about _____ all of the time. Its going to be hard for me, but I don’t want you to feed my anxiety and help it grow, which is what happens when you answer my questions about _____. So from now on when I ask you _____ please do not answer that question. And my anxiety can be sneaky, and might try to make me ask in subtle ways. No matter what, please DON”T ANSWER! Thank you!”

GRADUAL:

This method works best for reassurance that has been a longstanding problem and occurs in more than one area, or for people that find the idea of a “cold turkey” approach too hard. You can use the Facing My Fears: Exposure format to gradually roll back reassurance in a step-by-step, planned and predictable way. Just like in the “cold turkey” description above, you can remind your loved ones your anxiety is like a bully bossing you and your loved ones around, and that you’re tired of it holding everyone hostage. Work together with them to create a multi-phase plan to get rid of reassurance. This process might look like this:

Phase 1: You will agree to seek and receive a set # of items of reassurance per situation or daily. This will be based on how much you typically have been seeking. For example, if its 20 questions a day, drop it in half, or if there are 4 key situations, try seeking reassurance in only 2-3 situations.

Phase 2: After approximately 1-2 weeks with success in Phase 1, you will be ready for further reductions. As in phase 1, this will be based on how much reassurance you were previously seeking. Trying cutting the amount in half again, or reducing it by some fraction.  

Phase 3: Continuing to use the Facing My Fears model, this phase will move you forward to the pen-ultimate goal of no reassurance at all. This can be hard, but it is certainly possible. However, we would encourage that you do not end at Phase 3, but work hard to make it all the way to Phase 4.

Phase 4: In this final phase you will ask your loved one to generate some anxiety or doubt in you at any time you accidentally ask a reassurance question. Learning to tolerate some discomfort or doubt is an important skill, and Phase 4 will provide you with this opportunity. For example, if you ask your loved one, “Are you sure I can’t get sick from touching that door knob?” your loved one might respond, “I don’t know. May be you will. May be you won’t.” Although this can be hard and you may become upset at first, remember that you have many tools in your My Anxiety Plan (MAP) to help you cope. Other examples of what your loved one might say include:
  • “Perhaps people won’t talk with you. What would you do if that happened?”
  • “Some people don’t get a job offer right away. Some people do. Life is full of surprises.”
  • “You might fail. But you might not. There is no crystal ball.”

Tips for Success:

When you first stop getting reassurance, you probably will be quite anxious. In fact, you might become so anxious that it turns into your feeling frustrated, and even wanting to shout at your loved one, demanding they reassure you at once! This is normal. However, it is important that if you have decided NOT to continue to seek reassurance, that you stick with it! If you keep at it, and stick to the plan, you will learn to be able to tolerate your anxiety in more healthy ways. During the early phases, and even throughout the entire process, it is important that you take care of yourself and receive love and support in other ways. Plan some fun time with a friend, get a good night sleep, or book a massage. You can gain more ideas from some of these other useful links: