In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term: safety behaviours
Safety is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Maybe, but sometimes the mind will start shouting at you to do things that don’t actually keep you safe and instead just make you anxious, and that’s not a good thing.
Safety behaviour is a concept in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) refers to avoidance and related behaviours that people use to try to cope with anxiety. While safety behaviours may decrease anxiety temporarily, they actually reinforce the anxiety response to whatever the feared stimulus may be. And despite what monkey mind is busy telling you, they don’t improve your actual physical safety.
These maladaptive behaviours frequently occur in anxiety disorders, OCD, and PTSD, but they’re not disorder-specific and may be used by anyone who’s unable to access more adaptive coping techniques. They’re not a symptom per se, but rather an attempt to manage underlying symptoms.
There are two key types of safety behaviours: preventative behaviours try to keep you out of the anxiety-provoking situation in the first-place, while restorative behaviours are used as a way of running for the exit doors when in the midst of an anxiety-provoking situation.
Psychological tests may be used to evaluate the frequency of safety behaviour usage. The Subtle Avoidance Frequency Examination and the Social Behaviour Questionnaire measure safety behaviours related to social anxiety, and can give you more detailed examples of some specific safety behaviours.
Prolonged exposure treatment, including exposure and response prevention for OCD, takes advantage of the natural response for anxiety to decrease if a person remains in a situation long enough, because the mind can only sustain full tilt anxiety related to a particular situation for so long. This usually starts to happen after around 45-60 minutes, but the key is to stay in the situation until that drop-off occurs. Prolonged exposure has the opposite effect of safety behaviours by causing a spike in anxiety initially, then a delayed drop in anxiety. This natural drop in anxiety reinforces to the brain that the associated situation is not in fact dangerous.
I’m an avoider. It’s not so much about avoiding specific things, but more broadly avoiding situations that are likely to produce distressing emotions. I was trying to think of any specific safety behaviours that I used, but I don’t know if I can come up with anything. I think I’m more of a kill the fly with a bazooka kind of girl; either I just don’t get into the situation, or I get right up and leave. My avoidance definitely begets avoidance, but I’ve gotten fairly settled in and comfortable with it, so I don’t really see change happening until it starts to make me uncomfortable.
Do you use safety behaviours? In what context?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.