Compulsive alarm checking: Trying to beat alarm clock anxiety

I was once two hours late for a hotel internship in the US. The worst part, I only just moved to the US and the hotel let me stay there until I found an apartment.

I was two hours late for work whilst being in the SAME building.

Since then alarm clock OCD has worsened, in fear of a repeat. This has become mentally draining.

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Compulsive alarm clock checking falls under the ‘checking’ type of OCD. Although it may seem rational to recheck, it is in fact part of the disorder and counter productive. To get a peaceful nights sleep I know I need to target these compulsions.

In March 2021 I moved to west London, meaning I have to get up even earlier for my 7am start.

I work in Central London, in one of these tall highrises in the distance

I get the Overground to Euston, the Underground a few stops to Old Street and walk from there.

If I set my alarm for 5.15am, I have enough time to shower, leave my building by 5.50am and catch the 6.04am train. This gets me in with about 20 minutes to eat breakfast and get suited up.

My terrible fear of missing my alarm

Because of the previous experience of being late, I find myself over-checking my phone on an evening. This can take a whole ten minutes and is stressful. Not the way to get a good nights rest.

Three alarms (at least), and I always make sure my battery is over 70%. If it isn’t, I charge it.

I turn silent mode on and then off again so I see the little bell is no longer crossed out. I then proceed to set my alarm, even if it was already set from the previous day, so I can hear the clicks when I scroll through the minutes. This reassures me that the sound is on.

I then stare at the little clock symbol in the top right hand corner of the screen for as long as I need to until it feels right. I double click the home button to ensure there are no running apps that may drain my battery, look at the alarm symbol again and lock my phone. That final lock sound is when my routine finishes and I can now close my eyes.

Why do I keep checking my alarm?

Checking is one of the main types of OCD most people experience. It is the fear that if we do not check, something bad may happen. You may find this in other areas of your life, like checking the oven is off or the door is locked.

OCD is a disorder of obsessions and compulsions. The obsession is worrying about being late for work, class, or something else. We might have an intrusive thought about being two hours late and ruminate on this thought whilst we close our eyes. The compulsion is to keep checking the alarm, even after checking once, to try and stop the ruminations.

I talk about the difference between these terms here. It is also linked at the bottom of this post for you to read afterwards.

The endless cycle of compulsive alarm checking

As you can see, there is often a cycle of thinking which prevents us resting. We worry about being late, we over think about it and have to check the alarm just in case it isn’t set.

What if it’s on silent?

Have I set the alarm for the wrong time?

Will my battery die overnight?

The more excuses we have for compulsive alarm checking, the harder it is to convince ourselves that this check will be the final one. And if the first time wasn’t enough, why would we stop after the 17th? Being late is a rational fear, but the compulsion is irrational and only leads to more anxiety.

Breaking the cycle of compulsive alarm checking

The only way we can break the cycle is by knowing we are in one. Acknowledging that the checks are compulsions and are not doing us any favours other than reinforcing OCD.

When I wake up and get to the station on a morning, my brain tells me:

I know deep down that I do not need to carry out these compulsions. In fact I could leave so many rituals behind and still be sitting here in the freezing cold at 5.50am. But I need to learn to break the habits.

Different things work for different people. The reasons we worry about missing the alarm vary from person to person, from worrying about batteries failing to the alarm not being loud enough. What these fears have in common is that they are all very rare to actually occur, and it is highly unlikely that they would result in us not waking on time.

Here are a couple of things that have helped ease my anxiety, although they aren’t seen as long term solutions. They may help in the early stages of recovery, but I need to keep working on avoiding compulsive behavior if I do not want to see a relapse.

The two clock technique

Another way to minimize the risk of missing an alarm is to set two alarms. Not on the same device, but two separate devices.

I don’t see this as an abnormal thing to do. In fact I imagine quite a few people outside of OCD do the same. Alarm clocks do fail from time to time and batteries don’t last forever. More and more of us go to our smart phones for the wake up call and as reliable as they are, phones are prone to short battery life, system crashes and midnight updates.

Although some smartphones ensure alarms still work in power-off mode, this isn’t universal among the brands. We certainly worry about what features stop it working…

It could be wise to set two alarms, particularly if one is on a phone. What you don’t want to do here is repeatedly check both, as you will just double the time it takes to carry out the compulsions and will make an already difficult situation impossible.

Set the first, set the second, and rest. Remember that setting the alarm incorrectly is highly unlikely, setting two of them incorrectly is bordering on impossible. The second alarm is a safety net for the first, and the chances of the first one failing is so small it isn’t worth thinking about.

Our internal alarm clock

The body is great at naturally waking and sleeping at the times we prefer. When was the last time you slept until 3pm? The body knows roughly what time we tend to wake and sleep and sticks to it. Sure, we can easily sleep a couple hours longer on a day off, but are you one of many people that find they wake a few minutes before the alarm?

Although some of it is still a mystery, our body is on our side. Studies have shown that when we know we have to wake for a certain time, the body is prepared for it.

Although OCD may have us believe differently, our brain is certainly eager to wake at the right time. If everything else fails and our alarms decide to fail us, there is still a chance we will wake at the time we need, or not too long afterwards.

But this isn’t very important. Because your alarm won’t fail anyway.

Alarms still work in silent mode!

Apple had this response when I searched ‘do phone alarms go off in silent mode?’

So basically check your volume, and your iPhone will do the rest. More can be read from this page here.

Android may be the same, but it is better if you check with your specific model. I didn’t find such a definitive answer without entering forums.

Also, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, make sure your battery is charged!

Despite some phones waking you up even if it is on Silent Mode or Do Not Disturb, it helps to have power in the battery. A dead battery is no guarantee that it will wake you, and is no good if you need to call your boss telling them how late you will be. Charge before bed!

Conclusion

Alarm anxiety is very common, but can be helped.

If compulsions are out of control, the above techniques could be the relief needed to escape the cycle temporarily. The risk of missing an alarm is very low and OCD will always make you think otherwise.

Over the next few days, take back control one step at a time.

The important thing is to feel the compulsion without acting on it. Some techniques will help us control obsessive behavior, however there is no quick fix. It is okay to work on it a step at a time, realizing when we are acting irrationally without reacting to it.

A missed alarm isn’t the end of the world. The repercussions of a missed alarm aren’t apocalyptic, however the strain OCD can have on mental health can be severe. By acting on compulsions we allow the brain to prioritize what isn’t important (a late start to the day) in return for reinforcing a mental health disorder. Let’s turn this around and focus on what is important.

One check is enough. Once you acknowledge the compulsions without acting on them, you will hopefully notice a reduction in intensity over time.

Get a great nights sleep, get that morning coffee and have an awesome day!


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