Seeking Reassurance In Recovery and Breaking The Cycle

When dealing with an anxiety disorder we often talk about why seeking reassurance again and again is counterproductive and can make things worse. But why is this? And is there any time where seeking assurance is OK? Let’s answer these two questions, and look at ways to start breaking the cycle of reassurance seeking, in this week’s podcast episode.

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When anxious and afraid, it is normal and expected for people to seek assurance that they are safe and out of danger. This is a basic human response to threat. When dealing with an anxiety disorder, feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, discomfort, or panic will certainly FEEL dangerous, but they are not.  Seeking initial assurance on this is a normal and beneficial part of the recovery process. Everyone seeks assurance. It is often quite productive, especially at the start of recovery. In fact, in early sessions with a therapist trained to treat anxiety and anxiety disorders, psychoeducation is a vital tool that provides foundational information about the mechanics of what an anxious person is experiencing. Psychoeducation explains that it is all very scary and very uncomfortable, but also not dangerous. This is is an excellent example of productive assurance.

Here we are most concerned with the difference between productive assurance and unproductive, maladaptive reassurance seeking.  Maladaptive reassurance seeking becomes a common issue for many struggling with anxiety disorder recovery. Those initial confirmations that one is safe are helpful at first, but often do not last. The need to ask repeatedly if one is safe or to repeatedly confirm that this is “just anxiety” can lock one into an almost endless cycle in which an anxious person gets tricked again and again into  interpreting scary thoughts and uncomfortable bodily sensations as real threats. In that frightened state, seeking reassurance becomes a default coping strategy that may offer some sense of relief during each episode, but also blocks the important recovery lesson that an anxious person needs to learn from those challenging experiences.

The anxious person seeking reassurance repetitively ultimately finds that no amount of soothing words are ever really enough.  They become less impactful and are needed more frequently.  Assurance that they are safe doesn’t last. It melts instantly in the face of the next anxiety or fear spike, triggering a frantic request for more assurance that also will not last or be impactful in a significant way. The cycle continues, with the anxious person learning that they must be “rescued” by reassuring words in order to make it through any challenging episode. In this situation, a person trying to recover never has the opportunity to learn experientially that they themselves are capable of moving through the peak of anxiety, fear, and panic and always have been.  Without this vital lesson, recovery becomes even more challenging than it already is.

It is important to note that not every request for assurance coming from an anxious person is maladaptive reassurance seeking.  Knowing where that person is with respect to experience and recovery timeline becomes important.  For someone brand new to anxiety disorders with no knowledge of how this all works, asking for assurance is expected and must be met with confident, calming, assurance as requested.  Especially in online circles, we must be mindful of the knee-jerk reaction that makes us yell, “NO REASSURANCE!” in response to every question about a scary anxiety symptom or disturbing thought.

By the same token, we also must be mindful of the fact that in many instances, the most productive path to recovery from an anxiety disorder is counterintuitive and flies in the face of the basic human desire for comfort, feelings of safety, and soothing of fear. We all want to be kind to people that are suffering and asking for our help. We feel for them.  We often want to help take away that suffering. In the particular context we are always addressing, taking away that suffering generally means empowering and encouraging an anxious person to face what they fear and to navigate through that experience on their own while we cheer for them. Instinct might be to immediately tell an anxious person that they are OK and that they are safe, especially if that anxious person is someone we care about. While this is to be expected, the more supportive approach once initial assurance has been given is to recognize when the demand has become cyclical and repetitive and to instead remind an anxious person that they are capable of answering the need for assurance themselves by being brave and moving through the peak of the challenge and down the other side of the mountain, so to speak.

It is difficult to stop asking for reassurance!  Naturally, an anxious person wants to be soothed immediately when they are afraid or in a state of distress. They don’t get to just stop the reassurance habit dead in its tracks.  Often, people in the middle of the recovery process have to make a plan that involves their support people and support systems, changing the way they interact with them and how they use or rely on them. This may involve sitting down to discuss how interactions need to change, and shifting from soothing words to encouraging words that encourage independent navigation through discomfort. This is not an easy process to work through because at the most basic level it involves turning one’s back on strategies that deny the drive for immediate comfort and seem at face value to be “common sense”.

Expect, then, that when breaking the reassurance seeking habit, emotions might run high. There can be anger and accusations of abandonment or lack of support. That can lead to resentment and argument at times.  Remember that this can be an emotionally charged shift. We must expect that and do our best to not let things get out of control or fester.  One bit of helpful advice is to continually return to the principles at play, make room for emotions to surface naturally, and talk it out whenever possible when everyone is in a more rational and less emotionally charged state.

Breaking the reassurance habit and cycle is difficult but very rewarding in the end. It can help us find our strength and our power. It helps us build a sense of competence and self-efficacy. The happy side effect there is that when we break the reassurance seeking habit we can ease some of the burden on our relationships and and bring things closer to a “normal” state again.



Here Are A Few Links That Might Be Of Interest

The Selfish Nature of Disordered Anxiety

“Needing To Know For Sure” by Sally Winston and Martin Seif

Dr Sally Winston on Why Reassurance Is Not The Way

What Does Your Anxiety Support System Look Like?


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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)






Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.