Checking the Facts on Compulsive Checking: OCD

by | Aug 28, 2018 | Anxiety, OCD, Stress

Sophie Lynn-Evans, Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW

28 August 2018

I want you to think back to this morning and ask yourself “did I lock my door?” Perhaps you used a hair straightener or the stove in the morning, then ask yourself “did I turn that off?”

How confident do you feel in your answers? 100% confident? Or is there room for doubt?

It is common for each and every one of us to experience thoughts like this. Maybe on the way to work, a sudden thought pops into your mind that makes you question if you did or did not do something. In fact, sometimes you may have felt so uncertain in your answer that you thought “I’d better go back and check…just in case.”

Research indicates that the vast majority of people experience these thoughts, otherwise known as intrusive thoughts. Most people do not feel distressed by these thoughts, and are able to disregard the thought just as easily as the thought had entered into their mind.

For others, such as those experiencing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), such thoughts can lead to significant distress due to their sense of uncertainty and doubt, leading them to overestimate the risk of danger (e.g. the house might burn down), and causing them to feel compelled to check each time they experience an intrusive thought.

Checking and the role of doubt

Everybody engages in checking to some extent, for example checking if you have your keys before closing the door, or checking you turned off the lights before leaving the house.

Checking compulsions effect a large number of individuals experiencing OCD. The problem with checking is that the more we check something, the less accurate our memory tends to be about the outcome of that check.

Research shows that repeatedly checking something results in an increased sense of doubt and reduced memory confidence and therefore results in reduced certainty.

This is especially true if you are trying to remember something you do all the time, like brushing your teeth or turning off the stove after you have finished cooking. With reduced certainty, one is likely to experience more doubt leading to an increased need to check, and creating a self-perpetuating problem.

Here are some common things that people experiencing OCD will check compulsively:

  • Stove and appliances (e.g. heaters, hair straighteners, etc.)
  • Electrical switches (e.g. power outlets, lights)
  • Door locks (e.g. house, car)
  • Checking related to harming others (e.g. hitting a bump in the road when driving and going back to check you didn’t hit someone)

How do I know if my checking behaviour has become excessive?

Given that a vast majority of people will engage in some form of checking regularly, it can sometimes be difficult to know whether your checking has become excessive.

It can be helpful to think about the amount of time in a day your checking behaviour takes up. Individuals experiencing OCD will often spend significant amounts of time engaging in checking compulsions, regularly incorporate checking time into their daily routine, or find it very difficult to leave the house at times due to the need to check again.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself about your checking:

  • Does my checking behaviour cause me distress?
  • Does my checking behaviour interfere with my work, social or personal life?
  • If I could not complete a check, would this make me feel anxious or distressed?
  • Do I spend a long time engaging in checking each day (e.g. >1 hour)?
  • Do I feel like I cannot control my checking behaviour?
  • Have I attempted to stop checking and found this very difficult to do?
  • Do I check the same thing repeatedly, over and over again (e.g. checking the stove is off multiple times, etc.)

If you have answered yes to any of these question, or are unsure, then it may be possible that checking has become excessive and/or is interfering with your everyday life.

What can I do about my checking?

If you feel that checking has become a problem for you, is causing you concern or you are unsure and would like to find out more, it may be helpful to speak to your GP or a psychologist about your experiences.

Evidence-based treatments are available for individuals experiencing checking compulsions, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).

If you think that you, or someone you know, is regularly engaging in checking and may benefit from support, please contact The Talbot Centre for more information on how we can help.

Sophie Lynn-Evans

Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
Sophie is a warm and creative psychologist who is passionate about collaborating with her clients to develop their strengths and skills in order to achieve meaningful changes in their lives. Her naturally compassionate and non-judgemental clinical style allows clients to feel genuinely supported, and her flexible approach to therapy assists in achieving outcomes with clients that are consistent with their personal values and goals.