Secret signs of anxiety: part three

Today’s anxiety topic: compulsive double checking.

Check one more time I sent that email, check again the house is locked. Did I turn off the oven? The work alarm is it on? Sound familiar?

In this third blog of the series we are going to look at the possible secret sign of anxiety of finding ourselves double and even triple check things. We all have those wonderings every now and again, “did I remember to do X, Y or Z?”, but if we notice that we are doing more of this these days or that we can’t control it, it may be worth asking the question: what is going on here?

The prevalence of this issue has surprised me in private work with clients who are anxious; how it starts innocently but can be a marker of something else beginning to take hold. What it strongly shows is the link between, and the power that the mind has in connection with the body. Take for instance the following example:

“We have been looking forward to the summer BBQ all week, finally Saturday rolls around and the plan is to look great and see friends. Having just bought a new shirt/blouse which looks great and having ironed it just before leaving we are ready. Now heading out to meet the gang, the sun is shining, and life couldn’t be better. Getting about 150 metres from the house, the thought flashes across our mind: “did I turn the Iron off?””

Now from this point in time, I imagine the temperature and the mood in our mind and body has changed dramatically. Many people to whom I run this scenario noticeably change as they hear the end.

Perhaps they connect it to their own experiences of losing something, forgetting to do/send something or just wondering “what if” which altered their mood. The bodily feelings noted can be: a sinking feeling in the stomach, tension running across the back, the mind starting to worry and an impulse to act. Emotionally we can get fearful, angry, sad or even overwhelmed.

Scenarios such as forgetting the passport on the way to the airport bring nightmares to us all. Yet, although these incidents happen sometimes to people, why for some of us does double and triple checking become such a habit?

Why we do it more and more.

The mind has a powerful connection to the body and vice versa! Thoughts that flash across the mind can send powerful signals to the rest of the body which in turn spurn us into action. When a negative thought flashes across the mind it makes for an uncomfortable reaction in the body. It’s like an itch we have to scratch.

If I showed upsetting images on a screen, then the body will react. The same response occurs if a doubt enters our mind, registering in the body as a slight anxiety, an increase in heart rate, a fearful emotion in our chest or neck. Just as with the itch the urge to scratch it can take us even unconsciously or before we’ve realised.

Although what’s wrong with scratching an itch we might ask? We in Psychology and specifically in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy call an action that is a response to an anxiety provoking thought a safety behaviour. It creates safety in the moment. By double checking in that instant our stress and anxiety levels drop, we relax more momentarily we have a clearer mind having done that.

But with safety behaviours there is always a short-term benefit (as above), but also a long-term consequence. Long term we have reinforced the belief that we are forgetful. We create doubt in ourselves. If we double check things others do, we create and cultivate doubts in ourselves about them. This perpetuates it and means we are more reactive; we had to check the last 10 times what makes this time any different?

Most people I work with who do this habitually tell me that they have never forgotten to do the thing they constantly re-check, yet they don’t trust themselves. Doubts creep in, we can’t trust, we are uneasy and the behaviour that we hope will reassure us actually undermines our long-term confidence.

This is at it’s worst with people who struggle with OCD. For them checking, counting and repetitive behaviours are completely compulsive and highly restrictive. But this can affect everyone. It starts small but can spread and if it is accompanied by more of the symptoms of anxiety it can be one of the secret signs that anxiety is getting worse. This is really bad for us as it creates general anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks and may make PTSD, OCD and Phobias worse!

Fighting it:

For some the idea of not double checking brings up massive anxiety and if it were as simple as just stopping doing it there would be no need for this post, but habits are hard to conquer.

Sometimes exploring this along with other concerns with the right therapist can massively help. Someone experienced, caring and skilled to help fight the worry monster and the double checker.

Anxiety Ireland has a team of specially recruited counsellors working nationwide who combined have helped thousands of people with anxiety!

If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics. We are always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics.

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Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going no where fast, it’s ok to step off.

Michael Ledden

Team Anxiety Ireland