Compulsive alarm checking: Trying to beat alarm clock anxiety

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Compulsive alarm checking falls under the ‘checking’ type of OCD. Although it may seem rational to recheck, over- checking is in fact part of the disorder and counter productive.

The following article is anonymous. Our aim is to help people understand how normal certain thoughts are, and to know that professional help can improve daily life.

I was once two hours late for my very first shift in a new hotel job. I was on a year-long international internship in Texas, travelling from England after graduating university.

The worst part? I was staying in that very hotel for the first two weeks whilst I found my own place. Thankfully my manager was cool and let me off, despite the occasional joke over the coming months.

introduction post with title of post and Austin skyline

Since then, one of my biggest struggles with OCD is having to check my alarm over, and over, and over again.

Ten years later, I still have the same fears

I now live in west London, and still work in hospitality. I have to be at work by 7am in Central London for every shift.

Early starts, along with two separate train journeys, makes my anxiety even worse.

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 phone alarm routine

I find myself over-checking my phone every evening before a shift. It’s so stressful. 

I set three alarms (at least), and I always make sure my battery is over 70%. If it isn’t, I charge it but can’t sleep until I know its on a decent percentage. I worry that my charger will break and it will stop charging, and die as I am sleeping.

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.

Only then can I rest, but now I am stressed and angry and sleeping is difficult.

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.

The endless cycle

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 concern, but the compulsion is irrational. It only leads to more anxiety.

Breaking the cycle

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 we get to the station on a morning, our brain often tells us:

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.

A couple of things that can ease the anxiety, although they aren’t long term solutions. They may help in the early stages of recovery, but avoiding compulsive behavior is important.

Setting two alarms on two devices

Another way to minimize the risk of missing an alarm is to set two alarms on two devices.

This isn’t really an abnormal thing to do. In fact quite a few people without 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.

Setting the alarm incorrectly is highly unlikely, setting two of them incorrectly is even less likely.

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 eager to wake us up at the right time. If our alarms decide to fail us, there is still a chance we will wake at the time we need to, 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 has this response when searching ‘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 do the same, you will need to check with your specific model.

Despite some phones waking you up on Silent Mode or Do Not Disturb, it is still important to have power in the battery.

A dead battery will not wake you, and no good if you need to call your work telling them how late you will be.

Charge before bed!

Alarm anxiety is common, and 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 compulsively without reacting to it.

A missed alarm isn't as bad as OCD makes it out to be

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.

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