It’s normal to want to feel safe when we’re at home. After all, home should be a place that evokes feelings of calm, serenity, and security. For you, however, the idea of being home alone stirs up an intense fear.
Maybe you sit in your bedroom, too afraid to wander into other parts of the house. Maybe you count the hours and minutes until someone you live with will be home. Or maybe your mind tries to tell you that any sound coming from outside is an intruder hiding in the bushes.
The first thing to know is that if being home alone brings fear, you’re not alone in this. But why do some people feel like this? And what can be done to manage this fear of being home alone?
One explanation is that you have anxiety or a phobia. The same way some people launch into fight-or-flight mode because of their fear of heights or fear of being in tight spaces—the fear of being home alone usually isn’t rational, but it feels as though there is a real, serious threat.
Of course, sometimes the reason the threat feels so real is because you’re triggered by a past experience. Maybe you associate being home alone with something bad happening, because of an event that occurred in the past involving you or someone you know.
Having some tools to reduce your anxiety can be a helpful coping strategy if panic or anxiety are at the root of your fear. For example, listening to soothing music, doing your best to avoid spiking your anxiety with stimulants like coffee, and talking to a therapist can help a lot.
But what if you’ve tried those things and nothing works? What if your attempts to relieve your fear and anxiety only make them stronger? Is it possible that your fear of being home alone has a different root cause altogether? The answer is yes—and there are effective ways for you to get better.
OCD & the fear of being home alone
You may have heard about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For people with OCD, certain circumstances that most people would consider harmless—yes, like being home alone—are believed to have potentially dire consequences that require a compulsive response, such as checking to make sure the front door is locked every 10 minutes.
As an OCD therapist, I have seen how a fear of being home alone can impact people’s lives. However, it hits even closer to home; as someone who suffers from OCD myself, I have dealt with this fear, engaged in countless frantic behaviors to feel safe, only to see my OCD get worse over time. It wasn’t until I started facing my fears, through Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)—a form of therapy that I will explain in detail later in this article—that I started to see some real change.
I’ve struggled with different manifestations of OCD since I was a young child. However, it wasn’t until I was on my own after college, living with one sister (who wasn’t always home) that the specific fear of being home alone started to come up. I remember watching a 30 Rock episode where one character says to another: “I would think that a single woman’s biggest worry would be choking alone in her apartment.” Spoiler alert: she proceeds to be home later that night and chokes. Seeing that episode triggered an intense, ongoing fear of being home alone.
What did I fear? Well, to start, I worried that I would choke if I was alone. This fear got so bad that I wouldn’t eat when my sister wasn’t home, or I would only eat soft food like soup or yogurt. I reasoned that soft food doesn’t get stuck. Not only was I worried about choking while alone, I also worried about having a heart attack, stroke, or other medical emergency. Ultimately, I avoided being alone if at all possible. If my sister was going away for the weekend, I would make plans to go visit my parents or have a friend stay with me. This fear of being home alone, along with compulsions (safety behaviors) that went with it stayed with me for years until I started to face them with the help of ERP therapy.
As I began to face my fears, it was so hard for me to spend a weekend by myself. The first time I tried it, I was filled with distress the entire time—but I survived. Each time I stayed alone, it got a little easier, and over time, that fear stopped interfering with my life! Almost 20 years later, it still tries to creep in on occasion, but I know that giving into the compulsions (avoiding being alone, checking, safety behaviors like eating soft foods only) will only make my OCD stronger. Sometimes, I have to simply accept the discomfort I feel when I’m triggered by this fear, and wait for it to pass. What I have learned through my own experience is that it always passes.
What causes the fear of being home alone in OCD sufferers?
To restate the facts: not everyone with occasional or mild trepidation about being alone in their home has OCD, or any other mental health condition, for that matter. In order for these thoughts to fall under the category of OCD, you have to have some defining characteristics.
OCD is defined by two aspects: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted intrusive thoughts, urges, or images that come into a person’s mind. The intrusions often cause a great amount of distress, fear, and anxiety. Compulsions are mental or physical behaviors that a sufferer feels compelled to engage in to alleviate the distress from the obsessions. Compulsive behaviors may help temporarily to relieve distress, but ultimately reinforce OCD and the need to continually engage in those behaviors whenever an obsession comes up. In other words: they backfire.
Which OCD subtypes are linked to the fear of being home alone?
People with OCD often notice that their obsessions and compulsions are centered on a specific theme. These different themes are what are referred to as OCD subtypes. Despite what some may think, it’s quite common for people to experience symptoms of multiple subtypes at once.
Many subtypes of OCD can be associated with a fear of being home alone. With Harm OCD, for instance, you may fear that harm will come to you in some way if you are left home alone without anyone to “watch over” you—things like falling down the stairs or being robbed or attacked, or that you might even hurt yourself!
With Health Anxiety or Health OCD, there can be a fear of a health scare occuring while home alone. In my case, I would worry about having a heart attack, stroke, or choking while being home alone. If you have Existential OCD, you may fear being home alone because it makes you feel a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Someone with Relationship OCD might not want to be alone at home because they are fearful about being away from their partner, or worried that their partner will cheat on them if they are not at home together. And no matter what subtype, you may fear being home alone because of the intrusive thoughts and anxiety that can come when you’re by yourself.
Is fear a symptom of OCD?
Irrational fear is a large part of OCD. In fact, OCD is always irrational to some degree. Usually the fears in OCD are exaggerated and unlikely to manifest into reality.
Nonetheless, OCD is driven by the fear of consequences, no matter how unlikely they are. Fear is often the main part of the distress that we experience when we have an intrusive thought. Fear or distress is what motivates a person with OCD to engage in compulsions in an attempt to alleviate distress. I often say, “Without fear, there is no OCD.” Without fear, there isn’t a need to engage in compulsive behaviors.
Obsessions and Compulsions related to a fear of being home alone
These are just some of the ways that this fear may manifest—there are countless other obsessions and compulsions that are not included in this list:
Some common obsessions related to a fear of being home alone:
- If I am home by myself, I will have a medical emergency (heart attack, stroke, choking).
- I may hurt myself if I am home alone.
- If I am home alone, someone will break into my house and hurt me.
- If I am home alone, my OCD symptoms will get worse and I won’t be able to tolerate the fear.
- If I’m home alone, that means I’ll feel alone in the world.
- What if something bad happens to my loved one while they are out and I’m home alone?
- What if there is a house emergency and I can’t handle it alone?
- What if I am home alone and there is a weather emergency?
Some common compulsions related to a fear of being home alone:
- Avoidance of being home alone. Making plans compulsively to make sure you are out of the house and busy (like shopping or visiting a friend) if you know you will be home alone.
- Engaging in specific rituals while home alone, like checking locks, drawing the blinds, staying out of certain rooms, or turning on all the lights.
- Inviting people over when no one else is going to be home.
- Avoidance of doing certain things while home alone, which could be “risky,” like going down the stairs, eating, or showering.
- Calling/compulsively checking with roommates, partners, or family members about when they will be home.
How should you manage OCD fears about being home alone?
While OCD can feel daunting, it is 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.
People who struggle with a fear of being home alone will work with their therapist to build a list of the situations that trigger their fears, and begin confronting one trigger at a time. Usually an ERP therapist will help you start with something that brings about a low level of anxiety, then work up to harder challenges as confidence is built. The goal is always response prevention, meaning that 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 being home alone, without relying on compulsions to feel better.
Here are just some examples of what you might work on with an ERP therapist:
- Eating hard food while home alone (if you have a fear of choking), exercising while alone (if you fear you might have a heart attack), or taking a shower (if you fear you might slip and fall)
- Writing a script about the worst case scenario of what could happen while home alone
- Watching a movie where a person gets scared while home alone (the opening of the original Scream movie with Drew Barrymore is my personal favorite)
- Reading reports about people who were attacked while home alone
I did all of the above exercises myself when I struggled to recover from OCD. No, I did not like them—but I like my OCD even less. In doing so, I got better. I learned that I did not have to believe every thought or image or urge that popped in my head. It was liberating and life changing. And no one made me do it—it was all my choice to live the life I wanted to live, and not the life my OCD wanted me to live.
I can assure you that I have seen countless people overcome this fear of being home alone. To get matched with a licensed, ERP-trained therapist, you can book a free call with NOCD today.