Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Fears about fire

By Aaron Hensley, MSW LCSW

Sep 7, 20226 minute read

Reviewed byTaylor Newendorp

Harm OCD that includes obsessions related to fear of fire often involves two themes of fears. The first theme includes fears of accidentally or purposely causing a fire that will hurt oneself or someone else. The second theme is thoughts and images of a fire in general harming oneself or someone else. Both of these fears can generally be tied back to a core fear of being responsible for harm coming to themselves or someone else, and both can carry a lot of guilt with them. 

It is important to remember that these thoughts and fears are “ego dystonic,” which means that these thoughts are contrary to a person’s actual values, intentions, and desires. In the first theme, people may experience specific images or thoughts about how they would be responsible for a fire, which often causes them to engage in avoidance or checking compulsions to prevent the fire they fear they could be responsible for starting. 

The thoughts and worries could also deal with the past, involving a fear that they are responsible for a fire that happened in the past. People experiencing the first theme may feel guilty because they are afraid they are responsible for a fire somehow. The second theme would likely include general fears about a fire bringing harm to themselves or others, and compulsions would be more preventative. The guilt in the second theme would likely involve a feeling of responsibility through neglect.

Fire OCD – Common obsessions

  • I may cause a fire from leaving the stove on.
  • If I do not unplug all the outlets the house could catch on fire.
  • If I spill gas while filling up my tank I could cause a fire.
  • A fire could destroy my home, and hurt my children.
  • I went camping, and I cannot remember if I extinguished all of the ashes, so I may have caused a fire. 
  • My neighbor’s house burned down when I was child, and I fear I may have been responsible for it, even though I can’t remember. 
  • I had an image pop in my head of me setting my house on fire, and my family dying. I must want to do that. 
  • If I store flammable objects too close to the stove I may cause a fire. 
  • If I store chemicals too close together they will start a fire.
  • What if I want to start a fire?
  • What if I lose control and set something on fire

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Common triggers

People with fear of fire may be triggered by situations where a fire is possible or has already occurred. People with this manifestation of OCD may also be triggered by combustible objects, including candles, fireplaces, stoves, or matches.

Triggers for people with obsessional fears of fire in OCD include:

  • Chemicals
  • Lighters
  • Matches
  • Candles
  • News articles about fires
  • Bed time
  • Leaving the house 
  • Any kind of fire
  • Fireworks
  • Cooking or using stove
  • Intrusive images of fires
  • Driving past burned out houses or buildings.
  • Seeing crowded outlets
  • Blinking smoke alarms

How can I tell if it’s OCD fear of fire, and not general cautiousness and safety?

We all want to be cautious and safe when it comes to preventing fire. A major question we would want to ask is “is there a reasonable suspicion to believe the fear is probable?

If we determine that there is no probable suspicion that a fire is likely, we can probably recognize that the fears and cautionary behaviors are rooted in OCD. For example, most people will not leave an open flame burning while they leave to run errands, but most people will not need to compulsively check that they extinguished the open flame repeatedly before leaving the room.

Common compulsions

When people with fire OCD experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may feel an urge to complete certain compulsive behaviors to obtain reassurance, relieve anxiety, or prevent a feared outcome. These behaviors may be rigid and repetitive, and they can be both physical and mental.

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with obsessions regarding fire in OCD include:

  • Checking outlets (repeatedly/excessively)
  • Checking smoke detectors (repeatedly/excessively)
  • Separating chemicals
  • Watching the news for possible fires they may have caused
  • Refusing to use combustible items out of fear of purposefully or accidentally starting a fire
  • Keeping certain routines around leaving the house (unplugging appliances)
  • Avoidance of cooking
  • Checking for fires (repeatedly/excessively)
  • Checking to see if they smell smoke (repeatedly/excessively)
  • Ruminating on past events that involved fire
  • Express fears to others to get reassurance that they did not do anything. 

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How to treat fear of fire

It is important for people who suffer from this form of OCD to know that treatment is available. The recommended treatment for all OCD subtypes is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP has shown by decades of research to be the most effective form of treatment for OCD. 

The effectiveness of ERP comes from its focus on accepting intrusive thoughts, rather than resolving or avoiding them, and building tolerance to distress. OCD causes constant doubt, and ERP allows people to learn how to sit with the uncertainty that OCD creates, allowing them to feel less distress over time. 

With fear of fire, the exposure would be tied to your specific fears and obsessions about fire, and the response prevention would be tied to the compulsive behaviors you do in order to relieve distress and anxiety.

Common exposures for fire OCD

  • Watch news stories about recent fires
  • Imagine you set your house on fire
  • Set off fireworks
  • Burn matches
  • Leave an appliance plugged in while not using it. 
  • Leave your house and say “my house may burn down today”
  • Write down worst-case scenarios involving being responsible for a fire

If you’re struggling with OCD, I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

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