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Anxiety

Help an Anxious Loved One Break the Reassurance Cycle

Reassuring someone with anxiety doesn't help in the long run.

Key points

  • People with anxiety commonly ask their loved ones for reassurance in order to feel better.
  • Reassurance can help with anxiety in the short-term, but is a problem for the long-term management of anxiety.
  • Validation is different than reassurance; it too can become a problem if you are giving excessive amounts of validation to reduce anxiety.
Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock
Source: Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock

Does your loved one frequently ask you to reassure them about the things that make them anxious? Maybe they have a health concern and want you to tell them that it is nothing serious. Or they might fear they made a social faux pas, and want you to tell them that it is no big deal. Perhaps you both just left the house and they worry that they left the stove on—they may even ask you to drive back to check. Or, due to their relationship insecurities, they might ask you if are mad or still love them.

Your words of reassurance might help calm your loved one’s anxiety in the moment; however, they might keep returning to you for more reassurance the next time they feel anxious.

People who give reassurance have good intentions and want to help. Unfortunately, reassurance can inadvertently feed into anxiety and actually make it worse in the future. If you give frequent reassurance, it’s important to have some compassion for yourself in your situation: when your loved one is suffering, you want to help them feel better. Next, know that it’s relatively easy to make some minor changes with the reassurance dynamic that could have a positive impact in the long term.

Reasons for Seeking Reassurance

Reassurance seeking is seen across a wide range of anxiety concerns and there are some common reasons why people with anxiety want reassurance. First and foremost, people ask for reassurance in order to reduce anxiety and feel better. This anxiety can be caused by a few different reasons:

  • Fear of catastrophe. Examples of this might include a fear of being fired for saying something stupid in a meeting or a fear that a minor physical symptom is a sign of a horrible medical condition.
  • Discomfort with uncertainty. Research has found that greater reassurance-seeking behaviors are associated with a higher intolerance of uncertainty. For example, someone might struggle with making decisions because they don’t know what is the “right” decision and they fear making a bad choice.
  • To lessen personal responsibility. If someone fears they made a terrible mistake (e.g., leaving the stove on), asking for reassurance helps them feel less personally responsible for a horrible outcome since they are sharing the fear with another person.

Why Excessive Reassurance Is Problematic

It is normal to feel anxiety sometimes, such as wondering if you forgot to lock the door or said something stupid at a party, or if you are concerned about an unusual body sensation. If this happens on occasion, it’s fine to ask for reassurance, or do a reassurance behavior (e.g., checking the lock). However, for someone with more significant anxiety problems who frequently asks for reassurance, it can be counterproductive.

Reassurance often works very well in the short-term: A person experiences a spike in their anxiety, they ask for reassurance, and the anxiety decreases. Although in the moment it is appealing to reduce anxiety through reassurance, it is problematic in the long-term. Because reassurance gives immediate relief, it sets up the person to ask for more reassurance the next time they have anxiety. Thus, it can become a vicious cycle, almost like an “addiction” to the reassurance, and they do not learn to cope with anxiety by themself.

Without reassurance, a person’s anxiety will eventually decrease on its own. In learning to tolerate anxiety without reassurance, one learns that they can handle their anxiety and that horrible catastrophe is not just around the corner. They will gain more confidence in their ability to cope, will exit the reassurance cycle, and will experience less anxiety in the future.

How to Change the Cycle of Reassurance

  1. Talk to your loved one about why reassurance is problematic for anxiety in the long-term. Chances are, they probably realize it is a problem, too.
  2. Once your loved one is open to change, come up with a strategy together. While they might agree to decrease reassurance seeking, together you could come up with a plan for inevitable slip-ups. For example, you could gently say, “I know you want reassurance now, but I’m going to hold off, since it will help your anxiety in the long run.” Others might respond well to humor: “I think you probably left every burner of the stove on, as well as the oven, and I’m sure you secretly went over to all of our neighbors’ houses and turned their burners on too.”
  3. Provide reinforcement when applicable. If you notice that your loved one has decreased their reassurance seeking behaviors, let them know that you notice and appreciate it.

Validation vs. Reassurance

Previously I wrote a post about using validation to help decrease your loved one’s anxiety. It is easy to confuse validation and reassurance, and there is some overlap between the two. With validation, you are explaining why their anxiety makes sense given the situation. Reassurance often involves simply telling someone that their feared outcome is not going to happen.

  • Validation: "Given your family history of medical problems and your history of health anxiety, it makes sense that you worry that this bump on your wrist is cancer. Let’s wait a couple of days and see if it goes away on its own."
  • Reassurance: "Don’t worry; it’s just a little bump. I’m sure it is nothing and you will be fine."

Like reassurance, validation can often reduce anxiety. If it becomes a pattern where you are frequently giving validation, this too can be a problem for long-term anxiety management, for the same reasons that excessive reassurance can be problematic. Thus, you should work with your loved one on coming up with a strategy to reduce its frequency.

Ultimately, it’s not up to you to solve all of your loved one’s issues with anxiety. If they are in frequent distress, consider assisting them in finding a therapist. However, you can be helpful by using these strategies to break the reassurance cycle.

References

Cougle, J. R., Fitch, K. E., Fincham, F. D., Riccardi, C. J., Keough, M. E., & Timpano, K. R. (2012). Excessive reassurance seeking and anxiety pathology: Tests of incremental associations and directionality. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26(1), 117–125.

Halldorsson, B., & Salkovskis, P. M. (2017). Why do people with OCD and health anxiety seek reassurance excessively? An investigation of differences and similarities in function. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41(4), 619–631.

Rector, N. A., Katz, D. E., Quilty, L. C., Laposa, J. M., Collimore, K., & Kay, T. (2019). Reassurance seeking in the anxiety disorders and OCD: Construct validation, clinical correlates and CBT treatment response. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 67. https://doi-org.electra.lmu.edu/10.1016/j.janxdis.2019.102109

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