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Anxiety and Reassurance Seeking

A common behavior that arises with anxiety is the urge for excessive reassurance. When you are anxious, there is an insatiable desire to gain certainty that everything will be okay. Common reassurance seeking questions are “Are you sure I will be okay?”, “Do you think I will get sick?”, “What if I made a mistake on my exam?” “Is this a normal thought?”. We ask for reassurance when we feel that there is a danger; but, in fact, anxiety is driving the need for reassurance. Reassurance seeking only works in the short-term: the more you ask for reassurance, the more you will want it in the future.

Distinguishing Information-Seeking and Reassurance Seeking  

An information-seeker:

  • Asks a question one time to be informed and accepts the provided answer
  • Asks people who are qualified to answer the question
  • Asks questions that are answerable
  • Asks relative, qualified, or uncertain answers when appropriate
  • Pursues only the information necessary to form a conclusion or make a decision

A reassurance-seeker:

  • Repeatedly asks the same question
  • Asks questions to feel less anxious
  • Responds to an answer by challenging the answerer, arguing, or insisting the answer be repeated or rephrased
  • Often asks people who are unqualfied to answer the question
  • Insists on absolute, definitive answers whether appropriate or not

Reassurance seeking behavior must be treated in order for anxiety symptoms to be alleviated. Responding to requests for reassurance should be gradually reduced, as removing reassurance immediately may lead to heightened levels of anxiety.

Below are examples of how to respond to a loved one who is seeking reassurance:

  • You already know the answer to that question. I am not going to answer that.”
  • “Maybe you did make a mistake on your exam; what could you do to cope with that?”
  • “It sounds like your anxiety is acting up. What coping strategies can you use?
  • “What do you think? How could you handle that?”

Once the individual stops asking for reassurance, give him or her lots of praise and attention. Do not give the individual reassurance if he or she starts asking you questions again. You want to show the individual that reassurance will not be rewarded or answered by you.

Expect there to be anger and frustration when you begin working on reducing reassurance seeking. Be consistent. If you give in to a demand for reassurance even once, the individual has learned a powerful lesson: “If I persist and ask enough times, eventually I will get the reassurance that I want”. So, rather than getting rid of the problem behaviour, you have increased and strengthened it.

Reassurance seeking is a sign of heightened anxiety. When you stop receiving reassurance, it is normal to feel anxious. However, this is a good opportunity to start using other, more helpful coping skills.

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety reach out to a qualified provider today.