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What is OCDOCD SubtypesFear of leaving the faucet running 

Fear of leaving the faucet running 

8 min read
Melanie Dideriksen,  LPC, CAADC

Possibly related to:

A fear of leaving a faucet running may be a prominent symptom in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A person with fears related to faucets may think about flooding their house, harming people or animals as a result, damaging their property, or suffering financially because they left a faucet running. 

Fears about faucets in OCD

OCD involving fears about faucets often involves fears about harm coming to loved ones or oneself, or damage resulting from forgetting to turn off a faucet when leaving the house. A person with this fear may worry about drowning, flooding, extensive damage, or an extremely high water bill. Let’s take a look at an example:

Last year Jan started filling a bath at the end of a long day. She was looking forward to soaking in epsom salts and feeling relaxed. While the bath was filling she decided to run downstairs and transfer a load of laundry. Jan’s cell phone rang while she was downstairs and it was her husband who was deployed to Germany at the time. She picked up the phone, happy to hear from her husband—she missed him badly and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to talk to him. 

Before she knew it, an hour had passed and she was still standing in the laundry room. Unfortunately, the bath upstairs overflowed during this time. Jan had completely forgotten about it. She remembered when the water started coming through the ceiling into the basement where she stood. It was a disaster and did damage to her home. It was even harder for her to deal with because she was alone and didn’t have her husband to help. 

Jan has struggled with OCD since she was a child. After the bathtub overflowed she started to develop a persistent fear of flooding her house. Even though the fear was based on a real life event, it became out of proportion to the actual threat of flooding her home. She started to check all the faucets in her home multiple times per day. She often checks faucets even if she hasn’t used them in days, watching them for minutes to make sure they aren’t leaking at all.

Almost every time she uses the bathroom she has an intrusive thought that she left the bathroom sink running. Even without an intrusive thought or particular distress, she now follows a similar routine: she looks at the area where the water runs out and has to tell herself, “the water is not on.” She runs her hand under the faucet to be sure she doesn’t feel any drips, then repeatedly touches the handles of the sink to be sure they are all the way in the off position. Jan now has a hard time getting out of the shower because she has to repeatedly check the faucet, waiting well past all the water drains from the pipes. It can take up to 20 minutes per trip to the bathroom.

The kitchen sink is also problematic: Jan checks to be sure there is no food in the drain that could clog the sink. She has intrusive thoughts that there will be a flood in the kitchen that will cause electrical problems. She worries that she will come home from work and step in water that will electrocute her. Jan feels mentally exhausted and knows it’s time to get back into ERP therapy to address this fear.

Common obsessions

  • What if I flood the office and I’m fired?
  • What if I run up a huge water bill?
  • What if I left the faucet running and someone gets electrocuted?
  • What if my pets drown?
  • I remember turning the faucet off, but what if my memory is wrong?
  • What if I cause major damage to my home?

Common triggers

People with a fear of faucets in OCD may be triggered by any situations involving using a faucet or water, as well as times when they leave the home or other buildings after using a faucet. 

Triggers for people with OCD focused on a fear of leaving faucets running include:

  • Washing hands at a sink
  • Leaving the house
  • Using a shower
  • Using faucets or showers in a hotel or place other than home
  • Hearing something that sounds like running water
  • Using a public restroom/sink
  • Having a clogged drain

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How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD involving fears about faucets and not worry, cautiousness, or general stress? 

Clinicians who diagnose OCD use the criteria set forth in the DSM-5 for diagnosing mental health disorders. In OCD they look for the presence of not only intrusive thoughts, urges, images, or unrealistic fear, but also compulsions done in an attempt to reduce anxiety or prevent a feared outcome. 

If you think your fears about faucets may be a result of OCD, you can ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do you experience repeated, unwanted thoughts, urges, or images related to fear of leaving a faucet on and causing harm to yourself or others? 
  • How persistent are your fears around leaving the faucet on? Are thoughts popping up often? Are the thoughts distressing or disturbing? 
  • Do you engage in any behaviors in an attempt to neutralize those thoughts or fears or prevent a feared outcome, such as repeatedly touching sink handles, seeking reassurance, avoiding using faucets, or repetitively checking them? 
  • Do these worries or behaviors take up a significant amount of time? Do they take up more than one hour of your day?
  • Do these thoughts and behaviors interfere with your ability to function in daily life?

If the answer to some or all of these questions is yes, you may be suffering from OCD. Having an assessment with a trained OCD specialist can confirm whether your fears involving faucets are a sign of OCD.

Common compulsions

When people with OCD involving fears about faucets experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may feel the need to do compulsions to get rid of their fear and distress or prevent a feared outcome. Remember: compulsions can be physical or mental. Just because someone cannot see the compulsion from the outside does not mean it doesn’t exist. 

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with OCD featuring a fear of leaving faucets on include: 

  • Avoidance of washing hands or shower so one does not have to turn on a faucet
  • Seeking reassurance from loved ones: “Do you remember if I turned the faucet off? Can you double check that I didn’t leave the faucet running?”
  • Repetitive tapping of the handle to be sure the faucet is in the off position
  • Putting your hand under the sink to be sure no water can be felt coming out
  • Staring at the faucet to be sure it doesn’t start dripping
  • Returning to the faucet after leaving the house, often multiple times

Access therapy that’s designed for OCD

NOCD Therapists have used ERP therapy to help thousands of people regain their lives from OCD. I encourage you to learn about accessing ERP therapy with NOCD.

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How to overcome fears about faucets in OCD

OCD can be debilitating and interfere greatly with one’s daily life, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained ERP therapist, you can find relief from the cycle of OCD. 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. 

In ERP, people will work with their therapist to build an exposure hierarchy and begin working on one trigger at a time. Usually an ERP therapist will start with an exposure that is predicted to bring about a low level of fear and anxiety and work up to harder exposures as confidence is built. When doing exposures, the goal is always response prevention: your therapist will guide you in resisting the urge to respond to fear and anxiety by doing compulsions. Over time, this allows you to tolerate anxiety about leaving the faucets on, without relying on compulsions to feel better. 

Examples of possible exposures done to treat fear of faucets include: 

  • Showering and washing hands regularly without avoidance
  • Reducing time spent in checking rituals around faucets
  • Watching videos or reading stories about flooding
  • Leaving a faucet running and walking away for a certain amount of time
  • Turning faucets off without taping or checking rituals

If you’re struggling with OCD, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. 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.

We look forward to working with you.

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Patrick McGrath, PhD

Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."