Anxiety is a broad term used to describe feelings of anxiety (fear, worry, catastrophizing), panic, and different clinical forms of anxiety (general, phobic, panic attacks, etc). While each person experiences anxiety in different ways and each manifestation has its own unique qualities, there are a few shared elements.
One of those is the presence of safety behaviors.
These behaviors seem like they are helping. Often they guard against the crippling reality of anxiety. But, despite all their apparent benefits, safety behaviors are actually not helping you. I’m going to cover what safety behaviors are, what they look like, why you engage in them, why they don’t help, and ways to grow beyond these behaviors.
Let’s walk down this path together.
What are Safety Behaviors?
Safety behaviors are actions we take in order to reduce anxiety in the short-term. You have probably noticed yourself doing this whenever you enter an uncomfortable space, get asked a too-personal question, or otherwise just feel anxious and worried.
For example, let’s take everyone’s favorite: social anxiety. Many people feel worried about being in large groups of people that they don’t know. So, what do you do when you’re there?
I’ve noticed myself sticking to anyone that I know, hiding behind objects or in corners, speaking softly and very little, and (if food or drink is around) keeping my mouth full so no one thinks I’m available to speak. I also keep my eyes glued to the ground and shuffle away from anyone getting too close.
These are all examples of safety behaviors. They are actions taken in order to reduce anxiety and to make you feel safe in the moment. Not only that, but they’re really effective.
In the example above you’ll notice that it’s almost impossible to approach someone who is hiding, stuffing their mouth, and refusing to look at anyone. Not only do they make me feel safe, but they also avoid the anxiety-provoking event from happening.
What is an Example of Safety Behaviors?
There are numerous ways to break down safety behaviors, but one of the most common schemas is: avoidance, distraction, preparing, and checking.
Avoidance Safety Behaviors
These avoid the situation entirely. For example, if we’re talking about going to a party with lots of people, then avoidance would be any action that delays or stops you from going. Maybe you’ve found excuses not to go, or you find something else that MUST get done right now that gives you a reasonable excuse for not going, or maybe there’s something there you absolutely can’t stand and there’s no way you can go.
Whether these reasons are true or not, they all act to help you avoid the anxiety-provoking situation.
Distraction Safety Behaviors
These behaviors can sometimes avoid the situation, but more often they work better at delaying it from happening or distract you while the anxiety is occuring. The most common one we face today is checking our phone. Truth is that our phone will always give us something to look at, and if looking isn’t enough, we can always say we got a text or call that needs to be answered.
Any behavior that distracts you from the anxiety, that takes your focus and puts it somewhere safer, is an example of a distraction safety behavior. Now, DBT distraction can be useful and therapeutic, but only if done properly. Here, the safety behavior is only short-term and usually stops once the anxiety-provoking event is done.
Preparing Safety Behaviors
These behaviors might be useful if you plan on engaging in the anxiety-provoking situation, but they can also be unhelpful if done only to prolong the anxiety. Sticking with social anxiety (since so many of us face either clinical or subclinical anxiety around others), let’s say that you need to do something around others. Public speaking is a good example.
Preparing behaviors would be writing a speech, going over it, researching how to give a good speech, things like that. Sounds helpful, right?
What if you keep preparing, and keep researching, and keep going over the speech so much that you never have to give it? “I’m sorry, I really wanted to, but I just wasn’t ready, even after all those hours of writing and researching.” This can beget perfectionism and can trap you in a state of preparing but never doing.
However, if preparing is reducing your anxiety enough where you can perform the action, then this can be useful. Have an end goal in mind along with a set date to keep you on track.
Checking Safety Behaviors
Have you ever found yourself asking lots of questions when in an anxiety-provoking situation? “What’s that? Am I doing this right? Who are they? Why are they looking at me that way?” Am I doing everything wrong?” It’s checking in either internally (and facing the barrage of endless, unanswerable questions in your head) or externally by asking a trusted friend, loved one, teacher, or anyone else you feel you can talk to.
This can help you express your worry while potentially getting valuable feedback from someone else. At the same time, if all you’re doing is checking for the sake of checking, then it soon feels like everything you do is a problem and you won’t grow from the situation. You’ll be too focused on your questions rather than the event itself.
What are the Benefits of Safety Behaviors?
Every behavior we do has benefits. I firmly take the stance that we are doing the best we can in any situation. Maybe we can look back and say that there was a better way, but during that moment it didn’t seem like it. We engaged in our behavior (no matter how unhealthy it was) because it has some benefits.
I also firmly believe that we cannot move beyond our unhealthy coping mechanisms without knowing what the benefits are. They are helping us in some way, so let’s explore that.
Safety behaviors prevent or reduce the feared anxiety from happening. In phobic anxiety (like arachnophobia, hydrophobia, hemophobia, or any other from the long list of phobias(https://www.verywellmind.com/list-of-phobias-2795453)), there is a specific object or event that causes us fear.
Safety behaviors would avoid that event from happening. Let’s take hydrophobia, the fear of water. This can include never going to beaches or pools, staying inside if the weather even hints at rain, and being super prepared with all manner of equipment to avoid drowning or water exposure.
The benefit should be clear: it keeps the anxiety-provoking event from happening. At least, it seems to.
Sometimes the event still happens. Our safety behaviors reduce the odds of it occurring, and distraction-based safety behaviors can keep our focus away from the fear.
We also need to look at the end of anxiety. It tells us that we cannot handle the event or that we may even die from it. In that line of thinking, safety behaviors protect our ego and selves from facing more than we can handle. But, let’s hold onto this for now, we’re going to come back to it later.
In short, these behaviors avoid difficult situations and reduce our anxiety in the short-term.
Why Are Safety Behaviors Unhealthy?
I just listed a whole bunch of benefits to safety behaviors like helping to reduce anxiety and preventing terrible situations from happening. How can I possibly say that they are unhealthy and unhelpful?
Because it’s true.
Yes, these behaviors have their benefits, but they only help in the short-term at best. They also prevent us from engaging with anxiety-provoking events, which could be very beneficial to us if we did engage with them.
Going back to the social anxiety example, talking to others can bolster our social support network (which is great for mental health and resiliency), can network us professionally to get better jobs, and you can meet like-minded people who become friends or more. None of that can happen if you are busy disengaging from the situation.
Not only that, but these behaviors take a tremendous amount of energy. I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt tired after staring at my phone for an hour trying to avoid the people around me. It’s exhausting. We then need time off to relax and recharge from our safety behaviors.
There’s another critical component here.
Safety behaviors prevent us from growing.
Safety Behaviors and Personal Growth
How do you grow as a human? It’s a very broad question, but the simplest answer is through action. Doing and performing action, especially when it’s new and novel, will help you grow. Anxiety halts that process, and safety behaviors make us feel like we are progressing. We may not be facing our anxiety, but at least we’re doing an action to make us feel better.
The problem is that we’re unable to move beyond our anxiety. Even worse, we are engaging in our own stagnation.
By delaying ourselves from engaging with the anxious situation, we are preventing ourselves from learning coping skills and reaping any benefits from the situation. We learn more about ourselves as we face anxiety. We grow as humans, we can do more with less fear, and we find ways to self-soothe and comfort ourselves without preventing us from engaging with the world.
Safety behaviors help in the short-term, but they prevent us from becoming better selves.
Move Beyond Safety
You’re ready to move beyond your safety behaviors, that’s great! It’s a difficult choice because you must face your fears, but on the other side is growth. While there is no magic formula from reducing your safety behaviors, I will share a few tips with you that can get you started.
What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
Anxiety is telling you that you can die, that you can’t take it, that it’s better to be invisible and to never engage in this horrible, horrible fear ever again.
But let’s take things down a notch. Let’s breathe deeply in and out, calm our heads, and really look at the situation.
Can some anxiety-provoking situations kill you? Yes, some can. But, will this situation kill you? Probably not, let’s take a close look at it.
Let’s say that you are at a party and you want to talk to someone that you don’t know. Your heart is racing, you’re probably sweating a bit, and your face might be a humiliating red color. Finally, you get up the courage and talk to someone.
Realistically, what’s the worst that can happen?
There are a few things. They might laugh at you, not hear you, not be interested in what you’re saying, or just not want to engage. OK, those are all terrible things, but will you die from this? Can you truly not overcome this situation?
Chances are that the worst possible scenario isn’t that bad. Plus, it gets easier every time you do it. Maybe your first conversation didn’t go well, and maybe the next few don’t either. After a while you will learn from your failures, your heart will stop racing so quickly, and you will be able to engage in the anxiety-provoking situation more easily.
Many people feel that they can’t do something if they feel fear. You can’t try a new skill because you’ll probably be bad at it, and that’s fearful. You can’t talk to people you don’t know because who knows what they’ll do, that’s more fear. You can’t be around something that causes you fear, because fear has power and tells you to stop.
You’re going to feel fear in your life, and you’re most certainly going to feel it when confronting situations that provoke anxiety.
Maybe you feel it because you had a bad situation in the past that stayed with you, maybe you’re unpracticed and think you’ll be awful, or maybe it’s a phobia that’s been with you since childhood.
Accept that you’ll feel fear. It’s going to happen, it’s a human emotion, and you’re never going to get rid of it. But, you can accept it, reduce it, and practice the new situation until the fear is small and manageable.
In this case, I like to accept the fear, understand it’s part of me, and then count to three before engaging in the situation. No matter who’s around, no matter how it goes, no matter how poorly I start off, just a quick count and then engage in the fear.
For myself, I have always found that it’s better to engage than hide. If you’ve tried this before, then how did you make out?
Remove the Safety Net
Some people need a hard push. They need to know that there’s no way back and no way to retreat. That’s what this tip entails. What is your safety behavior? If it’s looking at your phone, then go somewhere that causes you anxiety and don’t bring your phone. Keep it safely locked away so that you have to engage in the situation.
You may also benefit from having an accountability partner. This should be someone who understands that your anxiety is holding you back. If it’s someone who shares a similar anxiety, then you might both want to retreat.
This person should help you spot when you’re engaging in safety behaviors and remind you to stop. It’s going to be annoying, and it might leading to some bad anxiety at first, but soon you’ll learn how to cope and engage with less fear.
Reduce the Behaviors
Maybe you’re not ready to entirely stop your safety behaviors. That’s fine. I want you to be better, and maybe stopping safety behaviors entirely isn’t right for you. It may not be in the cards now or ever. This is your life, so whatever makes you better is fine.
Instead of stopping, it might be better just to reduce the behaviors. Many people find that they are engaging in their safety behaviors more than they want. A good way to start is to count how many times you engage in them.
Let’s say that you check your phone 10 times during an event without there being any reason to. Next time, why don’t you only check 7-8 times? This gives you a chance to grow while also keeping your trusty safety behavior by your side.
My last time for the day is to start small. Back to public speaking, maybe speaking in front of 100 people is too difficult, so start smaller. Talk to one random person a day. Just one. Start with a safe “hello”, and then move into conversations. Bring up something that you like, or ask them for their opinion.
These can be people you meet during a walk, people waiting on line, or anyone else that you see in your daily life.
Then, increase how many people you talk to. Try talking to a few people at once. Then, see if your family or coworkers are up for hearing your speech. Just keep increasing the number of people you’re talking to until you feel comfortable with larger crowds.
Anxiety and Safety Behavior Worksheets
Here are some worksheets that you can use as well for extra help:
While safety behaviors make us feel safe from our anxiety, they are reducing our growth as human beings. I’ve shared some ways to reduce engaging in safety behaviors, but now I want to hear from you. What have you done in the past to reduce your fears? Or, how is your life now that you stopped paying so much attention to your anxiety?
I’d love to hear from you, so let me know.
Be well, and be your best self.