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When Checking for Symptoms Is an OCD Symptom

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.

One day, I noticed a patch of itchy skin on my arm with no visible rash. Feeling plagued by a phantom illness, I descended on my computer to consult Dr. Google.

“Itchy skin with no rash.”

Dry skin… fungal infection… intestinal parasites?

Symptoms can include constipation, skin irritation, aching muscles, fatigue and frequent hunger.”

I have all those symptoms!

How to treat intestinal parasites…”

For years I would consult the internet for every ache and ailment, and it never occurred to me that this was a symptom of mental illness. When you are stuck in a cycle of worrying, it seems logical to get answers for your questions. I thought I had reasons for the things I was doing. I considered myself some left-brained, logical thinker who liked researching. I didn’t see the unhealthy behavior, even with a pharmacy of herbal supplements in my bathroom or thousands of dollars in medical bills staring back at me.

I also liked to seek advice anonymously on social forums. Am I right to feel upset that my child was sunburned at camp? Should I seek help for her sleep walking? Does anyone else have mid-cycle bloating, and what was the cause? I told myself we are social animals and it is human nature to want feedback. Without living parents or a large support system, this seemed like a good outlet.

So, why is seeking reassurance such a big deal? To put it in clinical terms, when an individual seeks reassurance, they reinforce that they are unable to tolerate the discomfort of the uncertainty they are experiencing, and that the best way to alleviate the discomfort of that uncertainty is to compulsively seek reassurance.

When I first read about the types of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I quickly dismissed myself from having most of them because I didn’t perform the examples that were listed. I don’t repetitively check my doors, appliances or outlets, so I assumed I wasn’t performing checking compulsions — phew! However, checking is one of my main compulsions and I was clueless I was doing it because of the sneaky way OCD had manifested into my daily life.

Checking does not only involve repetitive checks of objects. Checking also encompasses other reassurance-seeking behaviors designed to see if you or your loved ones are safe. This could be a text to a friend or family member worded as innocently as, “When will you be home tonight?” Because these rituals are so subtle, it’s easy for them to slip past you. I used to think I was simply being responsible and informed. Now I know I did these things because the uncertainty was nagging at me. For example, if that text wasn’t answered, I would have feared my family didn’t love me anymore or there had been an abduction, accident, injury or another horrible outcome.

Other reassurance-seeking compulsions could include overcooking your food to avoid the possibility of food poisoning, wanting to hear or feel the safety seal click on your drink to prove it was unopened, reviewing or re-reading the same information multiple times to make sure there was no miscommunication, searching for a perfect doctor before treatment to avoid wasting time or money, and much more.

It was hard for me to accept these behaviors were OCD, because I viewed most of them as rational and harmless. My OCD also told me that if I didn’t do them, I was a bad parent or a bad person for not caring. However, I have learned that the more you listen to OCD and let it establish the parameters of your behavior, the more your symptoms will worsen. OCD demands certainty and safety at all costs, but we can never be 100 percent certain about anything. Now whenever I am feeling stuck or want reassurance, I try to remind myself I face uncertainty a hundred times in my day with other situations, and let that become the source of my strength.

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Thinkstock photo via kieferpix

Originally published: September 5, 2017
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