Just this morning, as I was walking out of my apartment building, I froze at the bottom of the stairs. Did I turn the stove off? Like every other morning, I made scrambled eggs for breakfast. And again—like every other morning—I worried that I forgot to turn the burner off. I stood there for a minute, sifting through my brain for a forgotten memory. Then I sighed and ran back up the four flights of stairs to ensure that my apartment wasn’t at risk of catching fire.

I don’t just do this in the morning after making breakfast, but in the evening after making dinner and at night after using my hair dryer. Basically, I live in constant fear that I’ll inadvertently set something on fire all because I forgot to press an ‘off’ button. I even had a dream a few nights ago about flames blanketing my kitchen table and counters: I stepped outside for a quick phone call and when I returned, the whole room was ablaze. As if I wasn’t already terrified of igniting a fire… this nightmare definitely kicked my anxiety into high gear. So now, even when I’m 99.9% positive that I turned off a given hot appliance, I stop what I’m doing, and I double check—I engage in checking behavior.

Checking behavior is characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Those diagnosed with the disorder oftentimes fear losing control over thoughts or actions, which ultimately causes them to repeat certain behaviors, like locking the door five times or turning the lights on and off and on and off. However, people with OCD are not the only ones to act on this fear and engage in repetitive or checking behavior: many of us, at one time or another, fear losing control and observe the harmful effects. A new study “Manipulating beliefs about losing control causes checking behavior” from Concordia University explores how this fear of losing control can impact those without OCD and reveals how the findings can help those with the disorder.

The researchers—who were led by Adam Radomsky, a psychology researcher in the Faculty of Arts and Science—conducted an experiment with 133 undergraduate students, who did not self-identify as having OCD. These participants were given random false feedback about either being at a low or high risk of losing control over their thoughts and behaviors; then, they were instructed to complete a computerized task, which involved sorting images on the screen using different key commands. Whenever they wanted, they could push the space bar on their keyboard to check the accuracy of the sequence. Results yielded that those who believed they were at a high risk of losing control (thanks to the false feedback) engaged in checking behavior far more often than those who believed their risk was low.

“We’ve shown that people who believe they’re going to lose control are significantly more likely to exhibit checking behavior with greater frequency,” Radomsky said of their findings. He went on to explain how this sheds light on effective treatment for OCD, whose sufferers constantly engage in checking behavior: “If you can show that by leading people to believe they might be at risk of losing control, symptoms start to show themselves, then it can tell us something about what might be behind those symptoms in people who do struggle with the problem. […] When we treat OCD in the clinic, we can try to reduce their beliefs about losing control and that should reduce their symptoms.”

This study left me wondering where my fear of losing control (specifically relating to fire) stems from—and I was quickly transported back to my teen years. One day, I forgot to turn my flat iron off after straightening my hair. I returned home to an angry mother and a burnt orange desk. Luckily, she noticed the burning smell and traced it to my bedroom, unplugging the hazard before it did any serious damage. But ever since, I’ve worried about making another simple mistake that could end in flames and smoke and destruction. According to Radomsky’s team’s findings, reducing my beliefs about losing control over flammable appliances could help me reclaim control and reduce my anxiety.

Concordia University (2017, December 13). The Fear of Losing Control and its Role in Anxiety Disorders. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved December 13, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/control-anxiety-8187/

Gagne, J. P., & Radomsky, A. S. (2017, August 31). Manipulating beliefs about losing control causes checking behavior. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. Retrieved on December 14 2017 from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221136491730115X