Anxiety and the Need for Reassurance
Uncertainty is an unavoidable fact of life, and people vary in the degree to which they can tolerate uncertainty. Research indicates that individuals who have high levels of intolerance to ambiguity are more susceptible to stress and other mental health concerns. They may attempt to manage their worry by avoiding situations, engaging in safety-seeking behaviors, or need ongoing reassurance to feel secure.
Some examples of reassurance seeking include:
- Checking the stove multiple times to make sure it is turned off.
- Repeatedly checking health symptoms or continually researching symptoms on the internet.
- Replaying events and conversations over and over to make sure no mistakes were made.
- Asking friends if they are mad. Even if they say they are not, asking a few more times to be sure.
- Worrying about unknowingly causing harm to others. Reviewing every action to see if harm has occurred or might occur later.
Anxiety counselling expert, Lynn Lyons, explains that when anxiety is running the show, it acts like a “cult leader” that demands both certainty and comfort in every situation. Receiving reassurance can bring some relief in the moment but an excessive need for reassurance can worsen anxiety in the long run. It can trap a person in endless analyses and planning for “what if” scenarios, and lead to the avoidance of all unfamiliar situations. Worry takes up a lot of head space. It can place demands on relationships, require many accommodations, and hinder a person’s growth and ability to enjoy the present moment.
One of the first steps in dealing with an excessive need for reassurance is to step out of the details and content of your thoughts and focus on understanding the process of worry. Worry can be quite predictable, and a person can learn to observe its patterns, expect it, and even normalize it. When you can accept that worry, uncertainty, and risks are natural occurrences in life, you can learn to talk to your worry, and develop some alternative responses and approaches that are more oriented toward problem solving. You can grow your confidence to step into situations of uncertainty and a counsellor can offer some support and strategies to break down these tasks into manageable steps.
Lauriola, M., Mosca, O., Trentini, C., Foschi, R., Tambelli, R., & Carleton, R. N. (2018). The Intolerance of Uncertainty Inventory: Validity and Comparison of Scoring Methods to Assess Individuals Screening Positive for Anxiety and Depression. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 388.
Wilson, R., & Lyons, L. (2013). Anxious Kids Anxious Parents. Health Communication, Inc.
Angela Chan, MA, is a Canadian Certified Counsellor with the Canadian Counselling & Psychotherapy Association and specializes in the areas of self-esteem and interpersonal relationships, as well as many others. For more information on Angela and her work click here to link to her full bio page.