Have you ever been laying in bed at night and suddenly wondered if you forgot to lock the doors? Some people may have this thought, dismiss it as probably being untrue, and quickly fall asleep.
Others may believe this thought every time, always getting up to check—even if they’ve already checked it. They want to be 100% certain about their safety, but no amount of checking can give them that. Doubt always persists.
If you relate to the second scenario, your worries over safety might be starting to dominate your life. If this is the case, it could be a sign that you’re struggling with a common but highly misunderstood mental health condition known as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Keep reading for more information about OCD and how it’s treated.
Is my fear of leaving the door unlocked a sign of OCD?
OCD involves obsessions, which are unwanted, distressing intrusive thoughts, images, urges, feelings, or sensations—and compulsions, which are any physical behavior or mental action done to relieve the distress of obsessions or prevent something “bad” from happening. OCD comes in many different forms and themes, but a common thread running through all of them is an intolerance of uncertainty and discomfort.
You might find that your intrusive thoughts about leaving your door unlocked are triggered by going to bed (and not being able to stay vigilant), leaving the house, being in a hurry (what if I was in such a hurry that I forgot to lock the door?), or hearing about break-ins on the news.
OCD can latch onto anything that we value, but there are common themes, also known as subtypes. The case of fearing you’ve left the door unlocked would most likely fall into the subtypes of either harm OCD or ”responsibility” OCD.
Harm OCD involves obsessions surrounding harming oneself or others. Intrusive thoughts could sound like:
- What if I leave the door unlocked on purpose so that my family gets murdered?
- What if I secretly want someone to come in and hurt me?
- What if there’s an intruder, and I stab them with a knife and kill them?
Responsibility OCD (which may also be referred to as scrupulosity OCD) involves obsessions around not being responsible “enough.” Intrusive thoughts could sound like:
- What if I leave the door unlocked and somehow the dog opens the door and escapes?
- What if I leave the door unlocked and my toddler runs out into the street?
- What if an intruder comes in and takes valuable items?
- What if I wasn’t paying close enough attention while I checked the locks, and I missed one?
These intrusive thoughts bring intense distress and anxiety, causing a strong urge to engage in physical and/or mental behaviors in an attempt to relieve yourself of those uncomfortable feelings and/or prevent that feared “bad thing” from happening—these are known as compulsions.
What are compulsions?
Compulsions aim to relieve your anxiety by providing absolute certainty that you locked your door, or perhaps by distracting you from distressing thoughts. They are repetitive and can take up hours of your day. Compulsions may help you feel a bit better, but only temporarily—overall, they only feed the OCD cycle and train your brain to continue seeing intrusive triggers as threats.
Here are some examples of what compulsions might look like with obsessions about leaving the door unlocked:
- Avoiding situations that trigger the intrusive thoughts/anxiety, such as leaving the house or going to sleep
- Mentally reviewing your memory of checking the locks
- Taking pictures of your door after you’ve locked it
- Seeking reassurance from loved ones: “Did I lock the door?”
- Giving yourself reassurance: I definitely locked the doors and double checked them.
- Checking locks multiple times in a row
- Tapping door knobs or locks
- Repeatedly checking alarm systems
- Changing the locks
- “Testing” locks
- Adding more and more locks to each door
- Distracting yourself from your thoughts and worries while away from home or while falling asleep
Let’s consider this example:
Brent was recently diagnosed with OCD. He works as a welder and started noticing his perfectionism affecting his job performance. He started checking his work repetitively throughout the day and continually doubting the completeness of his work.
Soon, Brent noticed that he started having intrusive thoughts about the safety of his family. After seeing a news report about a family being robbed and murdered, he started having intrusive thoughts about his family getting hurt if all the doors are not locked.
Brent started going around and checking all the locks before bed at night—even the doors that are never used. That worked for a couple days, but then his rituals became more and more repetitive, as lingering doubts always returned. After all, what if he made a mistake? Right before going to bed, he’s pretty tired, and his memory could never be perfect. If a family member talks to Brent while he is checking locks, he will have to go back to his starting door and begin his process again. When he is interrupted, he worries he wasn’t paying attention, or forgot to check one of the doors.
A few months later, Brent plans to attend a friend’s wedding across the country. He has been looking forward to it for a long time, but worries pop up as the date approaches—how can he leave his family overnight? What if something bad happens? Surely he can’t trust them with locking all the doors perfectly. He’s torn between the knowledge that he is living in fear and the overwhelming sense of doubt and responsibility that only grows stronger every time he double-checks the doors.
In this example, checking the locks takes up a significant amount of time and energy. The obsession has begun to overshadow the things that Brent cares about, such as spending time with his family and going to a friend’s wedding. This distress and impairment are hallmark characteristics of OCD, and key signs that it’s time to seek treatment.
Could it be something besides OCD?
Are you wondering if your lock-checking habits are actually just a healthy level of worry and cautiousness?
Of course, the best way to know is to consult a trained OCD specialist, but in the meantime, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Do you experience repeated, unwanted thoughts, urges, feelings or images related to fear of leaving the door unlocked and harm coming to yourself or others as a result?
- How persistent are your fears around leaving the door unlocked? 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 checking of door knobs or locks, seeking reassurance, or avoidance of leaving the house?
- 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 interfere with your functioning in one or more areas of your life?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might be experiencing OCD. Specifically, the presence of repetitive behaviors, like checking and rechecking the locks, suggests OCD.
People with an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, may worry about not having locked their door, but they do not engage in repetitive, specific compulsions like those with OCD do—they simply worry.
How can I get help?
Though OCD with a focus on the fear of leaving the door unlocked can be debilitating and interfere with your life, 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 individuals 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 you’ll work with your therapist to gradually, intentionally face the situations that trigger your fears and uncertainties. In these exercises, the goal is always response prevention: your therapist will guide you in resisting the urge to respond to fear and anxiety with compulsions like repetitive checking. Over time, this allows you to tolerate anxiety about leaving the door unlocked and the possible effects of doing so, without relying on compulsions to temporarily feel better.
Examples of possible exposures done to treat a fear of leaving the door unlocked include:
- Going to sleep and resisting the urge to check locks more than once
- Setting a timer for locking doors
- Leaving a secondary lock unlocked
- Leaving doors unlocked while leaving the house briefly
- Watching videos about intruders coming into houses
- Reading news reports about harm coming to families because of intruders
Just reading these examples of exposures might make you anxious, but that’s a good sign that doing them (with the guidance of a therapist) could help you. Over time, you can learn to stop sounding the alarm when intrusive thoughts pop up.
Start your recovery journey today
There is hope for you to take your life back and live according to your values, not your fears. Here at NOCD, we have hundreds of licensed therapists who have received intensive, specialized training in treating OCD with ERP therapy.
I’ve personally used ERP to help many people who struggled with fears about locking their doors, and I’ve seen how effective treatment can make a life-changing difference, helping them feel more secure and comfortable with uncertainty throughout their entire lives.
If you can relate to the experiences in this article, I strongly recommend reading more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to treating OCD.