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What is OCDOCD SubtypesFear of breaking the law – Could it ever be a mental health problem?

Fear of breaking the law – Could it ever be a mental health problem?

7 min read
Stacy Quick, LPC

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Reviewed by Patrick McGrath, PhD

Mar 6, 2024

Possibly related to:

If you do your best to adhere to laws and avoid illegal activity, that’s probably a good thing. Feeling responsible for your actions, their impact on others, and possible negative consequences will almost always be a benefit to you and the people around you.

That said, intense fear and anxiety—even around important things like breaking the law—can come at a severe cost to your mental health. And in these cases, it’s crucial to recognize the difference between healthy responsibility and unhealthy fear, and learn real strategies that can help you live a more free, happy, and confident life, even as you hold your behavior to a high standard.

Could it be OCD?

Some people with Responsibility OCD have pervasive fears and obsessions about breaking the law. This may take on the form of breaking the law unintentionally or intentionally. They may also become hyper-focused on their personality traits and behaviors, checking for signs that they fear could lead to criminality.

Individuals experiencing these fears do not want to break the law. In fact, they are most often hyper-aware of their actions, ensuring they do not break the law. They worry that they could break the law is what causes their distress, along with any possible implications and consequences. They may fear being ostracized by society or loved ones. They may envision themselves in a courtroom or going to jail. They may worry that they will be perceived as a “bad” person. Due to their acute self-awareness and introspection, it is highly unlikely that they would unwittingly break a law, but the possibility that they could feels very real and dangerous.

People with OCD experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that cause them significant distress and anxiety, called obsessions. In an effort to rid themselves of these uncomfortable feelings, people with OCD often will perform rituals or compulsions. Compulsions are actions, either mental or physical, done in an attempt to neutralize uncertainty or worry or prevent a feared outcome. 

People with OCD focused on a fear of breaking the law may frequently research laws, the consequences of unintentionally breaking a law, and similar information. They may avoid even touching items when in a store for fear they may steal unintentionally, or avoid stores altogether. They may be overly honest in any business transaction or confess personal things to others in an effort to ensure they are not breaking any laws. They may worry over the slightest perceived misrepresentation of information, fearing they could get into legal trouble. OCD can produce immense and persistent doubt, causing people to ruminate on every potential way in which they could break the law. 

Fear of breaking the law – Common obsessions

  • What if I break the law unknowingly?
  • What if I break the law on purpose?
  • What if I steal something or forget to pay for it?
  • What if I unintentionally accept stolen goods?
  • What if I speed or break a driving law?
  • What if I don’t follow a contract accurately?
  • How can I be sure I didn’t do something illegal?
  • What if my doubt becomes so strong that I confess to a crime I didn’t commit?

Common triggers

People with Responsibility OCD focused on fears about breaking the law may be triggered by situations involving anything they feel may have legal repercussions. They may be triggered when hearing about anyone having broken the law. They may be triggered by seeing things on television about laws or courtroom shows. They may avoid signing contracts or engaging in anything that requires a legal process. 

Common triggers for people with fears of breaking the law in Responsibility OCD include:

Examples:

  • Ray is shopping with friends when he forgets to keep his receipt when leaving the store. Later, at home, he is convinced he forgot to pay for some of his items. In order to feel better, he drives all the way back to the store to check.
  • Natalie is late for an appointment when she notices that she is going 2 miles over the speed limit. She immediately slows down and calls her partner to ask if she has broken the law and what could happen to her as a result. She then drives around the block to check if any police cars were present.

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How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD focused on a fear of breaking the law, and not a healthy degree of caution or an actual desire to break the law?

This is an excellent question. To know if you may be suffering from OCD, you need to learn to recognize the OCD cycle.

The OCD cycle is composed of: 1) intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, or urges; 2) anxiety or distress that comes as a result; 3) compulsions performed to relieve the distress and anxiety brought on by the intrusive thoughts, images or urges. Understanding this cycle can help you distinguish OCD from other conditions. Something to keep in mind is that if you are feeling an intense urgency to know if you might have broken the law immediately and with certainty, that is a red flag that OCD may be at work.

Everyone experiences doubts and worries about potentially breaking the law, to a degree. Most people who do not have OCD are able to live with confidence in their knowledge, intentions, and choices. However, people with OCD struggle to do this. They often believe that their thoughts necessarily mean something and that uncertainty about important things, like abiding by the law, cannot be tolerated. This is where OCD holds its power. Intrusive thoughts that occur with OCD are ego-dystonic, meaning that they go against the values, intents, or beliefs of the person with OCD, and as such, it can be difficult to accept uncertainty about them.

Common compulsions

When people with Responsibility OCD focused on a fear of breaking the law experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may resort to compulsions to neutralize or get rid of the anxiety or distress that they feel. Compulsions are behaviors or mental acts done to alleviate the distress and discomfort caused by intrusive thoughts, or to avoid a feared outcome. Compulsions may provide the sufferer with temporary relief, but do nothing to keep obsessions about breaking the law from returning again and again. Performing compulsions often inadvertently strengthens obsessions and fears, reinforcing the idea that obsessions posed an actual threat or danger in the first place. 

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with Responsibility OCD focused on breaking the law include:

  • Seeking reassurance from others
  • Self-reassurance
  • Confessing perceived wrongs
  • Paying excessive attention to details/legalities/researching excessively
  • Avoiding situations where they fear they might break the law, like driving
  • Mentally reviewing scenarios
  • Ruminating on past events and memories

How to treat OCD fear of breaking the law

Since the stakes feel so high, Responsibility OCD with a focus on fears of breaking the law can be debilitating, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with an OCD specialist, you can find freedom from the OCD cycle. 

ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD and many other anxiety disorders. It is backed by decades of clinical research proving its effectiveness and shows promising results within 12-25 sessions on average. With ERP, you will be able to teach your brain that your intrusive thoughts and worries about breaking the law don’t pose any danger, and that you are able to tolerate anxiety and uncertainty about them, just like in other areas of your life. 

In ERP, you’re gradually and safely exposed to the thoughts and situations that are likely to trigger intrusive thoughts and anxiety about breaking the law. With your therapist’s guidance and support, you will learn how to resist the urge to respond to feelings of discomfort and anxiety by resorting to compulsions. By continuing this over time, you learn that you are able to tolerate anxiety and you will feel more confident in your ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort. 

Examples of possible exposures done to treat fears of breaking the law may include:

  • Going to the store and taking free samples
  • Going to a store and not keeping the receipt
  • Borrowing an item from someone you know
  • Writing an imaginal script about breaking the law and bearing the consequences, and reading it out loud several times per day
  • Listening to a loop tape of triggering words about breaking the law
  • Looking at photos of people in jail

As an OCD specialist, I’ve used ERP to help many people regain their lives from OCD. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCD

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Gary Vandalfsen

Gary Vandalfsen

Licensed Therapist, Psychologist

I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist for over twenty five years. My main area of focus is OCD with specialized training in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I use ERP to treat people with all types of OCD themes, including aggressive, taboo, and a range of other unique types.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

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