Most of us have suddenly thought, “Wait — did I actually lock the door?” For some people, this might lead to locking up with more intention next time. But for others, it may be an anxiety disorder. Researchers say it’s all about being afraid of losing control.
I once had a neighbor who checked the door of his flat a dozen times before leaving for work and walked round and round his car as many times when he arrived back home, to make completely sure that everything was right.
I often imagined the terror he must live with all the time, going through imaginary scenarios of break-ins or the car ignition being left on.
This particular case may have been an instance of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by an uncontrollable checking behavior and recurring, bothersome thoughts.
However, many of us are exposed to sudden bursts of uncertainty. Did we switch off the gas before leaving for our holiday? Worse still, did we leave one of the children behind?
Absent-mindedness and the rush of getting to wherever we need to go can result in these lapses of memory and the sudden shock when we realize that we’re not sure if we did everything we should have.
New research from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, has suggested that such a fear of losing control can result in recurrent checking behavior. This, say the researchers, may be at the core of many anxiety disorders, including OCD.
“We’ve shown that people who believe they’re going to lose control are significantly more likely to exhibit checking behavior with greater frequency,” says study co-author Adam Radomsky.
The scientists hope that the new findings allow them to find better ways of treating OCD and other anxiety disorders at their core.
“[W]hen we treat OCD in the clinic,” Radomsky explains, “we can try to reduce [the patients’] beliefs about losing control and that should reduce their symptoms.”
The researchers’ findings were recently published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.
Radomsky and paper co-author Jean-Philippe Gagné, a Ph.D. student, worked with 133 participants recruited from among the undergraduate student cohort.
“[Those] who participated were given bogus [electroencephalograms],” which is a method that is designed to measure electrical activity in the brain, Radomsky explains.
“They were randomly assigned false feedback that they were either at low or high risk of losing control over their thoughts and actions,” he adds.
Once they had convinced the students that they were either in complete control or at risk of losing control, the scientists asked them to complete a computer task that required them “to control the pace of pictures” by making them disappear before they faded from the screen on their own.
What the participants weren’t made aware of, however, was that they had no actual control over the images, which were programmed to float in and out of sight at specific paces.
The participants were instructed to use various key combinations to control the images, and press the space bar to confirm their command.
Radomsky and Gagné found that the participants who were convinced that they were at higher risk of losing control of their actions engaged in more meticulous checking behavior than their counterparts, who were told that they were likely to maintain control.
What the team found most surprising was that none of the study participants identified as having OCD. This, the scientists think, is an indication that a fear of losing control stands at the core of many anxiety disorder symptoms.
“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.”
Yet Radomsky is hopeful, saying, “This gives us something we can try to treat.”
The findings verified the researchers’ initial working hypothesis, “[T]hat people’s fears and beliefs about losing control may put them at risk for a range of problems, including panic disorder, social phobia, OCD, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and others.”
Knowing that at the bottom of excessive checking behavior lies the worry of losing control over the situation may pave the way to more appropriate cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of a range of anxiety disorders, the researchers say.
According to Radomsky, “This work has the potential to vastly improve our ability to understand and treat the full range of anxiety-related problems.”