Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Fear of leaving the stove on

By Andrea Fine

Jan 31, 20238 minute read

Someone with OCD involving fears about unintentionally or intentionally harming themselves and others may suffer from persistent fears of leaving a stove on, resulting in damage or injury. They often feel highly responsible for any potential harm that could result for their actions, feeling a strong need for certainty and safety.

Fears about leaving the stove on in OCD

Fear of leaving the stove on is highly common for people suffering from Responsibility OCD or Harm OCD. People may find themselves persistently gripped with a fear of burning down their house, a loved one’s house, place of employment, or any other location where there is a stove. They may find themselves struggling with urges or compulsions to check knobs, feel the burners, and reassure themselves repeatedly to be absolutely sure a stove is off. Some will even avoid cooking at all, or will seek reassurance from others to ensure that they did not miss something. Let’s consider an example:

Case Example:
Katie is a 19 year old student who suffers from OCD. She has recently taken a semester of school off to complete an inpatient program and just arrived home last week. She is currently living with her parents and will return to the dorms in the spring. While many of her Harm OCD and Scrupulosity OCD fears and behaviors have reduced greatly, she still struggles mostly with Harm OCD. Katie worries that she will inadvertently burn the house down and will cause suffering or death for her parents.

She has intrusive images of the fire alarm going off and her parents being behind a wall of fire, unable to get out of the house. And every time she makes a mistake or is forgetful about anything else, she thinks “What if I mess up while cooking? I could burn the entire house down.” These fears have made Katie highly fearful about anything that could possibly cause a fire, mainly the stove.

Before long, Katie does everything she can to avoid the stove at all times. If she walks past the stove and feels she may have brushed up against a burner, she checks to be sure all burners are off. She feels most triggered by her fears at night and feels the need to check the stove repeatedly before heading to her room. She will stand in front of the stove, touch each knob, and say “off” while looking to make sure that the line on the knob is lined up with the word off. Her stove checking often takes 30 to 40 minutes before she feels safe walking away.

Katie will often ask one of her parents to come into the kitchen to check the stove as well. Her parents have recently learned about reassurance in OCD and have begun telling her “no,” or reminding her that she is seeking reassurance. This often makes Katie upset, and she will need to start her checking ritual over. She understands that her behavior is a result of OCD, but this fear feels too big and too real for her to accept any uncertainty or doubt.

Common obsessions experienced by people with OCD involving a fear of leaving the stove on include:

  • “I may not have turned the burner all the way off.”
  • “Maybe I brushed up against the burner when I walked by.”
  • “What if the pilot light is out””
  • “Something could fall on this stove while it is still hot and catch on fire.”
  • “If I don’t check the stove, I might burn down my house.”
  • “This restaurant might burn down if I don’t check the stove.”
  • “A piece of food may have fallen in the burner and will catch fire.”
  • “Using the stove before I leave the house is not a good idea.”
  • “My house could burn down with my animals in it when I am at work.”
  • “I can’t leave my house until my stove has cooled off all the way.”

Do these experiences sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

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Common triggers

Triggers are specific situations, objects, people, or thoughts that provoke obsessive fears. When someone with OCD feels triggered, they have a hard time just allowing that fear to be there. They feel that they cannot tolerate the uncertainty that the fear brings or the anxiety that they feel as a result. People experiencing Responsibility OCD or Harm OCD involving fears about stoves may feel triggered by cooking, being in the kitchen, or anything that requires them to leave the house.

Common triggers for people with OCD involving a fear of leaving the stove on include:

  • mon triggers for people with OCD involving a fear of leaving the stove on include:
  • Using the stove or cooking in general
  • Reading a news article about someone’s house burning down
  • Being in a restaurant
  • Going to bed at night
  • Walking past a stove
  • Leaving home, especially after cooking
  • Seeing someone else cooking on a stove
  • Allowing someone else to use their stove
  • Feeling a stove that is still hot
  • Smelling smoke or something burning

How can I tell if it’s OCD with a fear of leaving the stove on and not a healthy level of worry, cautiousness, generalized anxiety, or stress? 

Clinicians use specific criteria to determine if a person’s fears are a result of OCD. In order to make an OCD diagnosis, they look for the presence of not only intrusive thoughts, urges, images, or outsized fear, but also compulsions done in response, whether mental or physical. If you think your fears about leaving the stove on may be related to OCD, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you experience repeated, unwanted fears about leaving on the stove and causing harm to yourself or others?
  • How persistent are your fears around leaving on the stove? 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 repetitive touching of knobs or burners, seeking reassurance, avoidance, or checking?
  • Do these worries or behaviors take up a significant amount of time? Do they take up more than one hour of your day?
  • Do the thoughts and behaviors cause intense distress or interfere with your functioning in one or more areas of your life?

If the answer to some or all of these questions is yes, you may be suffering from OCD. Consulting a trained OCD specialist can confirm whether you are experiencing OCD and allow you to learn how to get better.

Common compulsions

When people with OCD involving a fear of leaving the stove on experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may feel the need to get rid of uncertainty, relieve their anxiety, or prevent a feared outcome by doing physical or mental behaviors known as compulsions.

While compulsions may provide short term relief from fear, they do nothing to prevent fear from returning in the future, and reinforce the vicious cycle of OCD, causing greater fear when obsessions return in the future and intensifying one’s intolerance for uncertainty and anxiety.

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with a fear of leaving the stove on include:

  • Avoidance of using the stove or cooking
  • Checking burners to be sure they are all the way off
  • Repeatedly feeling the knob to be sure it is in the off position
  • Seeking reassurance or asking family members to check the stove
  • Replaying in their mind what it looked like when they turned the stove off
  • Checking fire extinguishers, owning excessive fire safety products
  • Not cooking with particularly flammable substances like oil or butter
  • Cleaning the stove excessively so there is no food left behind
  • Checking smoke detectors repeatedly
  • Avoiding leaving the home after cooking

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How to overcome fear of leaving the stove on

OCD with a focus on fear of leaving the stove on can be debilitating and interfere significantly with one’s life, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained ERP therapist, people 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 live with uncertainty.

People who struggle with a fear of leaving the stove on 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 brings a low level of fear and anxiety, eventually proceeding 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 the anxiety and uncertainty you feel about leaving the stove on and potentially causing harm, without relying on compulsions to feel better.

Examples of possible exposures done to treat a fear of leaving the stove on include:

  • Reading articles about houses burning down due to cooking accident
  • Viewing videos of house fires or kitchen fires
  • Cooking something that briefly causes flames
  • Cooking meals on the stove instead of the microwave
  • Not checking the stove before going to bed

If you’re struggling with OCD and are interested in learning about ERP, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment with the NOCD Care Team to find out how treatment can help you. All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training and ongoing guidance from our clinical leadership team. Many of them have dealt with OCD themselves and understand how crucial ERP therapy is.

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