“Is it normal for people with OCD to fear going to jail for an unknown reason?,” asks one Reddit user. “I’m 99% sure I haven’t done anything to be thrown in jail for, but… I catch myself assuming it’s going to happen and that scares me even more.” If you’ve ever had intrusive thoughts about going to prison, you’re not alone. Some people worry they’ll be arrested for breaking the law without their knowledge. Others fear that things they’ve done in the past will somehow land them in jail. The “crime” could be anything—downloading music, stealing a piece of candy from a store as a kid, harming someone accidentally.
While many people associate the term obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with things like germ and obsessive hand-washing, the disorder is far more complicated than that. And, yes, to answer the Reddit user’s question—and maybe also yours—fears about landing in jail might actually be a sign of OCD. Let’s explore what’s at play here as well as ways to break free from the prison of your own mind.
What causes the fear of going to jail in OCD sufferers?
Let’s take, as an example, someone who is constantly afraid that he hit someone with his car. Anytime he drives by workers in a construction zone, he questions whether he might have veered off into their workspace. Obsessing about a hit and run that he may or may not have been involved in leads him to wonder when there will be a knock on the door by police officers ready to take him away in handcuffs. He spends his nights lying awake in bed fearing jail. He asks himself questions like, “Would I have my own jail cell or be forced to bunk with a violent man? I’m allergic to dairy. Will I be forced to eat what they serve? Will my wife leave me? Will anyone visit me in jail?” The worry list goes on and on, and turns into days or even weeks spent spiraling out about going to jail.
To understand these fears and why they can spiral out of control so quickly, we need to know a bit more about OCD. OCD has two main components: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions take the form of intrusive thoughts, urges, feelings or uncomfortable sensations. Compulsions are mental or physical behaviors repeated over and over.
If a person has a distressing thought about going to jail and not being able to remember if they did something to warrant it, OCD might dig in further: “What kind of irresponsible person doesn’t know for sure if they hurt someone in a hit and run accident?” Because of this mounting distress, they feel unable to let go of their fears, compelled to engage in compulsions in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort.
A person with OCD will engage in these behaviors for more than an hour each day, sometimes spending nearly all their waking hours consumed by obsessions and compulsions. As a therapist who treats people with OCD, I’ve heard patients tell me they feel like their OCD is present from the time they get up until the time they go to bed.
Obsessions & compulsions associated with this fear
People who fear going to jail are not bad people. In fact, most times the complete opposite is true. In my 10 years as a therapist, I have never once felt a need to call the police because someone actually may have caused a hit and run. Fear is not the same thing as intent or negligence—often, it’s a sign of strong underlying concern and care!
If you come away from this article knowing one thing about OCD, I hope it’s this: it goes after the things you care the most about. People with OCD who fear going to jail, in my experience, have been the kindest, most compassionate, trustworthy, and responsible people I’ve met. Remember that OCD is ego-dystonic. It’s a big word, but basically means that OCD fears go against what we value most in our identities, values, and desires.
That’s important to keep in mind as we discuss the obsessions and compulsions that can be associated with this fear, such as the ones listed below:
Common OCD obsessions related to fear of going to jail:
- “What if I go to jail because of something I did in the past, like stealing or trespassing?”
- “What if someone reports me because of my intrusive thoughts about violence?”
- “What if I can’t remember that I did something illegal, but someone else knows? Maybe I hit someone with my car and left the scene, and I just don’t remember.”
- “What if I am falsely accused of a crime I didn’t commit and go to jail?”
Common OCD compulsions related to the fear of going to jail:
- Seeking reassurance from friends, loved ones, family, or even a therapist: “Are you sure the statute of limitations is up on that CD I shoplifted when I was 18? Do you think I would ever hurt someone? Is it possible that I just don’t remember what I did?”
- Replaying past events in your mind to be sure that nothing illegal happened.
- Checking to be sure no crime was committed. For example: driving back to the construction site you passed when having an intrusive thought about hitting someone, or watching the news to see if any hit and run crimes were reported.
- Avoidance behaviors, such as not driving on the highway or past a construction site if you’re afraid of hitting workers, or staying away from children if you’re afraid of harming them.
How fears about going to jail impact your life
It’s worth repeating: Not all fears about going to jail mean that you have OCD. But if you do meet the criteria for diagnosis, the impact is typically felt in many parts of your life. Everything including your overall mental well-being, your self-esteem, your relationships, your work, and your self-care can be impacted.
That probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise, considering how exhausting it can be to constantly think about strong fears. You might find that you are distracted, have a hard time doing tasks that were once easy, and really don’t feel like enjoying your life. Worst of all, you might start to truly believe you are a bad person who deserves jail or punishment.
How should you manage OCD fears about going to jail?
Like all forms of OCD, these fears are treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained ERP therapist, you can find relief. ERP is the gold standard of treatment for OCD and is backed by decades of clinical research. Most people who do ERP with a trained OCD therapist experience a decrease in OCD symptoms, reduced anxiety and distress, and increased confidence in their ability to face their fears.
People who struggle with a fear of going to jail will work with their therapist to do exposure exercises that allow them to confront one trigger at a time. Usually an ERP therapist will start with something that brings about a low level of anxiety, then work up to tackling things that are more anxiety-producing.
The goal of exposures is always response prevention, meaning that your therapist will guide you in resisting the urge to respond to fear and anxiety by engaging in compulsions. Over time, this allows you to tolerate anxiety about going to jail, without relying on compulsions to feel better.
Here are some of the tactical tools your therapist might use with you:
- Ask you to write a script about going to jail/prison
- Ask you to watch a video portraying people’s lives in prison
- Ask you to watch interviews or read articles about someone going to jail because of a hit and run accident or child molestation (or whatever potential crime you may be worried about)
- Ask you to write a script about what you did wrong that will land you in prison
Help is easier to access than you think
As an ERP-trained therapist, I have seen this fear come up for many of the people I work with to recover from OCD. And time and time again, I have seen people overcome this fear. It is important to work with a trained OCD therapist who understands how OCD can manifest in the fear of going to jail/prison.
Here’s the bottom line: You are capable of facing this fear, and there is hope for long-term relief. If you’re struggling with OCD and are looking for treatment that can help you get better, NOCD is here for you. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs—and that means the best care for our members. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with one and get started with OCD treatment.