“I packed my keys in my backpack—right? Let me pull over to check, just in case.”
You’ve probably had a thought like this from time to time—all of us have. We’re not perfect, we make mistakes, and we can’t always remember exactly where things are—even really important ones.
But that’s not why you’re here. Perhaps you’re here because it started with a similar thought, but then you started double-checking your bag, then triple-checking, and now you can’t go anywhere without making sure everything is where you left it. Maybe you get up from bed at night just to check that your wallet in where it’s supposed to be, and not on the sidewalk outside. Perhaps you’ve even started only wearing pants with zipper pockets, because the constant worry about something falling behind is just too stressful.
Most likely, none of these specific examples fits what you’re going through exactly, but you’re sure of one thing—your fear about losing things that matter is impacting your life, and you want to regain control. The good news is that you can. Believe it or not, I’ve helped many people with very similar struggles. As a therapist who specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I know that these fears, doubts, and “what ifs” tend to share a common cause: responsibility OCD.
How is a fear of losing things related to OCD?
People with Responsibility OCD focused on losing things experience intrusive doubts, thoughts, or fears regarding their ability to remember what they’ve done with something. Someone with this subtype of OCD may find it difficult to tolerate any uncertainty about where they put something down, where an important item in the house might be, or what they did last with something they touched. They may fixate on situations where they remember seeing the object, but fear they can’t remember precisely what they did with it.
They may feel extreme guilt, shame, or anxiety due to fears that they are incompetent or “losing their mind.” Individuals with Responsibility OCD may feel the need to label items in the house, constantly make sure they are where they should be, check that their stove is off, put their knives under lock and key, or take pictures of where their items belong.
There are many fears associated with Responsibility OCD focused on losing things. Responsibility tendencies are often considered to be ego-dystonic, meaning that the thoughts, fears and urges they involve are unacceptable to oneself, their identity, and their desires. This is different from thoughts that are ego-syntonic, meaning that they are seen as acceptable to oneself, their identity, and their desires.
When somebody experiences Responsibility OCD, they experience unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, doubts, or urges that cause distress and anxiety, called obsessions. To relieve this distress or avoid feared outcomes, people with OCD resort to compulsions. While compulsions may provide short-term relief (i.e., feeling certain about the precise location of your wallet), they do nothing to keep obsessive doubts and anxiety from coming back, and actually reinforce both the OCD cycle and the anxiety triggered by obsessions.
Common obsessions about losing something important
In Responsibility OCD, obsessions are the unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, urges, and feelings that something might be lost or misplaced, and they tend to cause anxiety and discomfort, especially through an intense need to know the exact location of things.
- Fears of losing things that are important
- Feelings of frustration, tension, or anxiety if something isn’t where it belongs
- Hyperfixation on order and putting things back in their proper place
- Fears of accidentally losing something valuable
- Worries that you might misplace something if not being careful
- Worried that you might not be able to remember if something is missing or not
- Fears that people might be stealing from you
- Lingering doubt about things that were put away recently
While there are many obsessions that are associated with losing things, there are just as many triggers that lead to these thoughts. Since you likely spend most of your life near (or in possession of) objects of importance, you might find that your fears could pop up at nearly any moment. Here are just a few examples of situations that commonly lead to doubts like yours.
Common triggers for obsessive fears about losing things:
- Noticing something is missing
- Leaving things unorganized
- Noticing that something has moved or is in a different spot
- Feeling like you can’t remember where you put something
- General clutter
- Other people being in your living space
- Important occasions/schedules
It is also important to remember that triggers for responsibility OCD include many situations where people are feeling overwhelmed. If a person feels like they are being judged or evaluated, then intrusive thought patterns may be stronger. These triggers can appear at home, work, school, or even at the grocery store.
How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD focused on fears about losing things, or if I’m experiencing healthy levels of anxiety?
When it comes to fears that involve losing things, it can be difficult to determine what is OCD and what is normal or healthy. The best way to understand this is to gain knowledge about OCD. OCD is composed of three basic components: 1) intrusive thoughts, feelings, or urges; 2) anxiety or distress that comes as a result; 3) compulsions done to relieve this anxiety or distress. Understanding this cycle can help you distinguish OCD from other conditions or issues. If intrusive thoughts increase distress, make you feel like you must know where something is with certainty, and interfere with life, then you may be dealing with OCD.
The other thing to consider is that keeping things in order or constantly checking your body to make sure you have everything you need (like your wallet) may be a sign of Responsibility OCD. The idea of losing things starts to cause distress and you may engage in compulsions in order to feel certain about where important things are. These compulsions can be physical or mental actions, and people may get “stuck” making sure things are in a safe and secure spot for unnecessarily long periods of time trying to achieve certainty and comfort.
The presence of repetitive compulsions is the best way to see if you are struggling with Responsibility OCD—for example, if you find yourself returning to check where an item is shortly after initially checking.
If you do compulsions, it’s probably OCD
When people with Responsibility OCD focused on losing things experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may engage in a variety of mental or physical compulsions.
Compulsions keep people stuck in the cycle of OCD. When somebody feels anxiety from an intrusive thought or feeling, people seek comfort to relieve the anxiety and reduce uncertainty. Once compulsions are eliminated from one’s response to obsessions, this anxiety decreases over time, and people learn to accept and tolerate the uncertainty or distress surrounding their obsessions.
Compulsions involved in this subtype are generally straightforward, as the person tends to correct exactly what they feel the problem is.
Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with losing things OCD include:
- Checking and rechecking to see if something is where it belongs
- Excessively putting things where they belong
- Seeking reassurance from others to see if they have lost something
- Avoiding situations where you might lose something (trains, rollercoasters, etc.)
- Numbering items and the spots where they go
- Bodily checking (wallets, keys, etc.)
- Only using bags or pockets with zippers or similar closure
- Taking pictures of items in their proper place
- Labeling all important items with their proper location
How you can overcome your fear of losing things
Responsibility OCD focused on losing things may make it seem like there is no end in sight, but that is not true. While many people struggle with it, many people also overcome it. It is highly treatable by doing Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy with an OCD specialist.
In ERP, you’re gradually, safely exposed to thoughts or environments that are likely to trigger intrusive thoughts and anxiety. Then your therapist guides you in resisting the urge to respond to the distress with compulsions. By doing this over time, you learn that you can tolerate anxiety, and as a result, your thoughts become less and less distressing over time, and you will find yourself caught in cycles of compulsions less and less.
Here are some examples of possible therapy exercises that you might do, with the help of a trained specialist, in order to overcome your fears and doubts:
- Leaving your phone in another room for an entire day
- Emptying your purse into another bag and using it instead
- Going out with your wallet in a bag instead of a pocket
- Leaving your phone or wallet in a pocket without a button or zipper
- Writing down and reading a worst-case scenario about losing your wallet or phone
- Placing your phone in your backpack at night and leaving for work the next morning without checking its location
Note that all of these potential exposures must be done without resorting to compulsions in order to find relief. This would include resisting the urge to check and re-check that your phone or wallet is still in the bag you carry with you, for instance.
You don’t have to feel this way forever
If you come away from this article with anything, it should be hope. Not only is there a name for what you’re experiencing, but there’s something you can do to get better—something that’s helped thousands of others before you find relief from the same fears.
Here at NOCD, all our therapists receive intensive, specialized training in treating OCD with ERP therapy, and we’ve developed a highly successful track record, allowing thousands of people to regain their lives from every subtype of OCD. That’s why I’m so confident that we can help you, too, learn to live in confidence, rather than fear.