Anxiety Safety Behaviours

What are safety behaviours and why do we use them?

Anxiety is a very natural, but very uncomfortable feeling. To prevent ourselves from experiencing anxiety, we often implement behaviours we think will keep our fears from coming true and help us feel more comfortable in situations we are anxious about.

If we think a situation will not go well, we are likely to experience anxiety when thinking about it and may even avoid the situation altogether. If the situation is unavoidable, we may use more subtle forms of avoidance or take precautions to try and prevent what we fear from coming true. These are safety behaviours and look different depending on the person.

Examples of Safety Behaviours

Behaviour: Staying quiet in social situations

Fear the behaviour is intended to prevent: “If I talk, I might say something stupid.”

Behaviour: Not touching things in public

Fear the behaviour is intended to prevent: “If I touch something in public, I could get sick.”

Behaviour: Wearing headphones on public transportation

Fear the behaviour is intended to prevent: “If someone tries to speak to me, I won’t know what to say and it will be awkward.”

It is important to remember that it’s not what you are doing, but why you are doing it that determines whether it is a safety behaviour. Lots of people wear headphones and listen to music while riding the bus. If they are doing this for enjoyment, chances are it is not due to anxiety. However, if headphones are used to prevent someone from approaching them, this would be considered a safety behaviour. If you are not sure whether something you do is a safety behaviour, you can ask yourself: “How anxious would I feel if I stopped doing this?” If you would feel anxious without the behaviour, you are probably using it to provide a sense of safety.

Why are safety behaviours a problem?

Safety behaviours help decrease anxiety in the short-term. So why are they problematic?

  • Safety behaviours can become self-fulfilling prophecies and cause the outcome we are hoping to avoid. For example, if you avoid everyone at a party, chances are you will not make any friends. This contributes to the idea that you are awkward and nobody likes you.
  • Safety behaviours stop us from testing our fears. By avoiding situations, we rob ourselves of the chance to overcome them. We remain afraid and anxious and will not have the tools to manage the same fears when they arise in the future.
  • If our fears do not come true, we believe they were prevented by the safety behaviour. Due to this, we become very dependent on our safety behaviours and feel even more anxious if they can’t be used. Our fears may not have come true without the safety behaviours, but we do not give ourselves the chance to see this.

How do I stop using safety behaviours?

The first step is to identify what situations are making you feel anxious and the safety behaviours you use to help with this anxiety. You can list these situations from least to most anxiety-inducing. Using this list, you can start to put yourself in situations without your safety behaviour, gradually working up to the most difficult situation. This is referred to as “gradual exposure” or “exposure therapy”. It is most often done

with the help of a counsellor who can walk you through the process and support you with the proper techniques for working up your list. Please reach out to any of our staff for a free consultation if you feel exposure therapy may help you to overcome your fears and decrease your reliance on safety behaviours.

Written by Cat Zydyk

References:

Anderson, R., Saulsman, L., & Nathan, P. (2011). Module 7: Challenging avoidance and safety behaviours. In Helping Health Anxiety. Centre for Clinical Interventions. https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Consumer-Modules/Helping-Health-Anxiety/Helping-Health-Anxiety—07—Challenging-Avoidance-and-Safety-Behaviours.pdf

Centre for Clinical Interventions. (n.d.). What are safety behaviours? https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental-Health-Professionals/Health-Anxiety/Health-Anxiety-Information-Sheet—02-What-are-Safety-Behaviours.pdf