Updated: Apr 19
Safety behaviours are things we do to feel more comfortable in situations that make us anxious. For example, if we believe that a situation won't go well, we may feel anxious and have the urge to avoid it. But if we can't avoid it, we might use safety behaviours to try and prevent our fears from coming true.
Here are some examples of safety behaviours:
Taking on behind-the-scenes roles in social situations - "If I’m helping in the kitchen, I don't have to interact with others."
Not touching things in public -"If I touch something in public, I could get sick and die."
Wearing headphones on public transport -"If someone tried to speak to me, I wouldn't know what to say, and they would think I'm stupid."
These behaviours can be different for everyone, and it's not the behaviour itself, but the reason behind it that makes it a safety behaviour. For instance, someone might wear headphones on public transport to listen to music for enjoyment, not because they're anxious about speaking to people. So, it's the function of the behaviour that's essential.
If you're uncertain whether something is a safety behaviour or not, ask yourself, "How anxious would I feel if I couldn't do this?" If you'd feel anxious without the behaviour, then it's probably a safety behaviour.
Why are safety behaviours a problem?
Safety behaviours may seem helpful in the short-term because they reduce anxiety in the moment. Unfortunately, they keep anxiety going in the longer term. Here are a few reasons why:
They can stop us from testing our fears directly.
By using safety behaviours, we don't get a chance to see if our fears are really as bad as we think they are. Our untested fears will continue to arise in the future.
They can actually make our fears come true.
We can actually cause the outcomes we're trying to prevent. If we stay quiet in work meetings because we're worried about saying something wrong, our boss might actually get more frustrated with us than if we had spoken up.
We can become dependent on them.
We might believe that our safety behaviours prevented our fears. This can make us even more anxious if we can't use them. The truth may be that our fears might not have come true even without the safety behaviour, but we never discover this as long as we continue relying on them.
They can make us too focused on ourselves.
Often, safety behaviours take our focus off the 'task at hand'. Instead, we become too focused on ourselves (e.g. our thoughts, how we're feeling), which can lead to more anxiety.
If anxiety stays high after repeatedly confronting a situation, you're likely using safety behaviours that are preventing you from directly testing your fears. It's important to recognize safety behaviours so you can plan to stop using them in anxiety-provoking situations.
What can you do to help overcome your safety behaviours?
1. Identify your safety behaviours - Notice what behaviours you do to feel safe and avoid anxiety or fear.
2. Challenge your thoughts - Ask yourself if your fears are realistic or if there is evidence to support them.
3. Gradually face your fears - Start small by doing things that make you feel slightly anxious and work your way up to more challenging situations.
4. Practice coping strategies - Use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or positive self-talk to help you calm your mind and manage anxiety in challenging situations.
5. Seek support - Consider seeking the help of a therapist who can guide you through therapy that helps you confront your fears in a safe and gradual way.
Because safety behaviours reinforce the belief that a situation is dangerous or threatening, overcoming them can help reduce anxiety. By always relying on them, you may never learn that you can manage those situations without them, and that can make your anxiety worse. But by facing your fears, questioning your thoughts, and practicing coping skills, you can learn to manage your anxiety without needing safety behaviours. Ultimately, this can help you gain more confidence and feel more in control of your life!
Psychotherapy can be an effective way to overcome safety behaviours and manage anxiety. A therapist can work with you to identify the underlying fears that are driving your use of safety behaviours and help you develop more effective coping strategies.
It's important to note that overcoming safety behaviours and managing anxiety is a gradual process, and there may be setbacks along the way. But with the help of a skilled therapist and a commitment to making changes, it is possible to reduce reliance on safety behaviours and feel more comfortable in anxiety-provoking situations.
About The Author
Natasha Filntissis earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Western University. She is a passionate advocate for mental health, & believes in the importance of taking care of one's physical and mental well-being. In addition to her academics, Natasha was also a former semi-professional soccer player. Her favourite self-care activities include journaling, practicing yoga, and Pilates. Natasha intends to pursue a Masters degree in a field of Psychology, & her ultimate goal is to inspire and educate others about the value of mental health and self-care to lead a fulfilling life.