Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Fear of sunburn

5 min read
Aaron Hensley, MSW, LCSW

Possibly related to:

A person who struggles with OCD may experience an intense and persistent fear of sunburn. Fear of sunburn in OCD often centers around the possible harm, discomfort, or health issues that might result from sunburn and general sun damage, both for oneself and others, such as children.

Fears about sunburn in OCD

As public awareness increases about the consequences of frequent tanning and sunburns, including cancer and other long term effects on skin, many people are especially conscious about using sunscreen and avoiding sun damage. However, individuals with OCD focused on a fear of sunburn develop excessive fears around sunburn and the consequences of sunburn. 

A fear of sunburn associated with OCD involves recurrent, persistent, unwanted, and intrusive thoughts, images, or urges related to sunburns. These experiences are called obsessions, and they can be very distressing. In addition to experiencing obsessions and fears, OCD sufferers also typically engage in compulsions, which are mental or behavioral actions performed to reduce anxiety or prevent a feared outcome. 

Feared outcomes associated with sunburns will differ from person to person. Someone with Health Concern/Contamination OCD may fear sunburns as a cause of skin cancer. Someone with “Just Right” (Perfectionism) OCD may fear sunburns due to the discomfort sunburns cause, or the impact it might have on their appearance. 

Common obsessions experienced by people with a fear of sunburns in OCD include:

  • What if I get skin cancer because I had too much sunburn?
  • What if I never feel relief from this sunburn?
  • What if I get sun poisoning and die?
  • What if the sunburn ruins my skin, and it’s never the same?
  • I will never feel right again until the sunburn is gone.
  • What if my skin gets spotty or wrinkled because of sunburn?

Common triggers

People with OCD with a focus on a fear of sunburns may be triggered by situations, events, conversation, or health screenings involving exposure to the sun. These triggers will be specific to the individual and their unique feared outcomes.

Triggers for people with OCD with a focus on fear of sunburn include:

  • Being outside in the sun
  • Getting a minor sunburn
  • Seeing others with sunburn
  • Children getting sunburn
  • Dermatologist appointments
  • Seeing moles or wrinkles
  • Seeing pictures of sunburns
  • Hearing about skin cancer
  • Hearing or reading about the dangers of sunburns

How can I tell if it’s a fear of sunburns associated with OCD, and not general skin protection and caution?

This is a great question, and with something clearly harmful like sunburn, we should draw a clear line between fear and caution. Many people engage in appropriate levels of caution around preventing sunburns and sun damage. However, even people with OCD accept some level of risk or uncertainty at all times, without letting them rule their life. If a person cannot accept the risks associated with sunburns without engaging in excessive and repetitive behaviors to feel safe or secure, then the fear may be excessive. 

To draw this distinction even more, we should understand that fears in OCD have a behavioral component that exceeds recommended precautions. The fear of sunburn will show up with excessive and repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the anxiety or preventing a feared outcome. Someone who is merely cautious about avoiding sunburn will accept a level of risk or uncertainty, and follow the recommended precautions to reduce the risk and damage caused by sunburn. 

In OCD, compulsions often provide temporary relief from fear and anxiety; however, they lead to significantly increased fear and anxiety in the long run. Engaging in compulsions strengthens the obsessions and causes the OCD sufferer to become more trapped in the vicious cycle of OCD and anxiety. For individuals with OCD, the obsessions and compulsions generally lead to significant anxiety and distress, take up a significant amount of time, and/or impact the person’s daily functioning in one or more domains of life (i.e. social, occupational, academic).

Common compulsions

When people with a fear of sunburns in OCD experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may engage in excessive and repetitive behaviors in an attempt to feel safe or secure, exceeding recommendations for sun safety.

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with a fear of sunburns may include:

  • Excessively applying and reapplying sunscreen
  • Applying sunscreen when no prolonged exposure to the sun is anticipated
  • Excessively checking skin for irregularities
  • Seeking reassurance from a doctor for any skin irregularity
  • Applying aloe when no sunburn is present
  • Avoiding prolonged sun exposure, or avoiding the outdoors generally
  • Mentally reviewing any situation where a sunburn could have occurred
  • Asking family members for reassurance that they are not sunburnt
  • Repeatedly researching about possible negative consequences of sunburn

How to overcome the fear of sunburn in OCD

OCD with a focus on fear of sunburns can be debilitating and severely restrict people’s lives, but it is highly treatable with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is the leading evidence-based treatment for OCD, is highly effective at treating OCD, and has been empirically validated by decades of clinical research.

By doing ERP over time, most people experience a decrease in OCD symptoms, reduced anxiety and distress, and improved confidence in their ability to confront their fears and tolerate anxiety. ERP helps people to learn that they can experience their triggers and tolerate anxiety without needing to engage in compulsions. ERP can provide freedom from the need to engage in compulsions and avoidance, and allows the individual to live a life in line with their values, desires, and intentions, rather than being guided by fear.

Examples of possible exposures done to treat a fear of sunburns in OCD include:

  • Looking at photos of sunburn
  • Look at images of skin cancer
  • Go outside for short periods of time without sunscreen
  • Go outside for prolonged periods of time and apply sunscreen only at the recommended frequency
  • Write a worst-case scenario about developing a sunburn

If you’re struggling with OCD and are interested in learning about ERP, you can schedule a free call 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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