I remember at the peak of my anxiety when I was around 19 years of age developing safety behaviours to help me cope and ultimately survive. So, what exactly are safety behaviours? A safety behaviour is a coping behaviour, or a ritual that a highly anxious person undertakes to reduce anxiety, when they feel threatened. For example, an individual who has social anxiety may make excuses not to attend a social gathering, to escape a potentially uncomfortable situation. I remember one of my safety behaviours was to walk a certain way home after visiting my home town so not to ‘bump into’ somebody that I did not like. I knew that if I did see this person, I would experience an extreme amount of stress and may even have a full-blown panic attack. I was merely trying to protect myself, even though in the short term.
To the anxious person safety behaviours often help to achieve the desired goal, to reduce anxiety and panic. This only works in the short term, and does not deal with the root causes of the anxiety. Ultimately safety behaviours work against the anxious person, as they maintain the fear. They help the anxious person living in the fear because they are keeping their focus on their fears. Using safety mechanisms helps reinforce the irrational belief that it is the anxious person’s behaviour keeping them safe and not themselves. It is taking away their confidence that they can deal with the symptoms, which is the confidence they need to have when developing their knowledge and actions with their Anxiety, enough to encourage remission of their symptoms.
An extreme form of a safety behaviour would be acrophobia. The anxious person has convinced themselves that there exists danger outside, thus by not going out the anxious person is enabling the fear to perpetuate. The anxious person then becomes locked in a cycle of irrational behaviour, staying in and never going out for fear of what may happen to them. These people ultimately live very unhappy and unfulfilling lives. Safety behaviours reduce existence and make life smaller and narrower; they force anxious people to focus on their panic and their symptoms so that they are ready to apply them every time they get a drop in mood.
Typically, (this is no means an exhaustive list), the following types of safety behaviour are prevalent amongst anxious people:
- Never ever leaving home without a mobile phone so that you can call for help when you need it
Carrying a water bottle to wet your throat and ease the choking feeling you can have during panic
Obsessive checking to avoid danger, for example checking the car door is locked 10 times before you walk away
Only travelling within a certain distance from your home for fear that something might happen.
Playing on your phone or taking a call to take your mind of panic
Carrying a sedative tablet in your pocket “just in case”
Carrying a paper bag in your pocket
leaving a room quickly without reason to
Making excuses that may give you a way to leave a situation when you want to save face when with others
Always taking your car to meetings rather than taking the train/plane, so you can just leave if you need to
Rumination and self-monitoring of moods constantly
Always having an escape route close by