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What Is… a Safety Behaviour

Safety behaviours in CBT: image of a helmet and a brain with a psi symbol

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is safety behaviour.

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 as CBT concept

Safety behaviour is a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) concept that refers to avoidance and related behaviours that people may 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, a safety behaviour does not improve your actual physical safety.

These maladaptive behaviours frequently occur in anxiety disorders, OCD, and PTSD, but they’re not disorder-specific. Anyone who’s unable to access more adaptive coping techniques may end up relying on safety behaviours. They’re not a symptom per se, but rather an attempt to manage underlying symptoms.

There are two key types of safety behaviours, preventative and restorative. 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.

The purpose of the behaviour

A given behaviour may be an adaptive coping strategy or a safety behaviour depending on when and why you’re using it.

Consider the example of carrying a water bottle everywhere you go. Perhaps you’re on a medication that gives you a really dry mouth, to the point that it can make speaking uncomfortable sometimes. If you carry a water bottle so you can problem-solve if this issue comes up, that’s probably an adaptive coping mechanism. This used to be an issue for me, and carrying my water bottle was really no different from being prepared with a couple of tampons in my purse for when my period started. If I forgot it or it, the dry mouth could get annoying, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

On the other hand, let’s say you have anxiety about choking, so you carry a water bottle around with you on the off chance that disaster may strike and you start choking. Each time you stick that water bottle in your bag or check to make sure that it’s there, it reminds you that you’re scared of choking. That’s starting to sound like a safety behaviour. Perhaps you think that the only reason you didn’t choke was because you were prepared by bringing your water bottle. That’s really starting to sound like a safety behaviour.

CBT4Panic has some examples of common safety behaviours here.

Psychological tests

Psychological tests may be used to evaluate the frequency of safety behaviour usage, and you may find you’re surprised by just how often you’re using them without even realizing it. 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.

Safety behaviours and exposure

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. The mind and body can only sustain full tilt anxiety related to a particular situation for so long. This usually starts to happen after around 45-60 minutes. The key is to actually remain in the situation until that drop-off occurs. Prolonged exposure has the opposite effect of safety behaviours, in that it causes an initial anxiety spike, then there’s a longer-term drop in anxiety. This natural drop in anxiety reinforces to the brain that the associated situation is not in fact dangerous.

If exposure feels like it’s not working, it may be because you’ve been hanging onto your safety behaviours during your exposures. This gets in the way of your brain learning that the situation you’re exposed to isn’t actually a threat.

Safety behaviours can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you avoid making eye contact with anyone in a social situation because you’re worried that [X] will happen, that very lack of eye contact may be the reason why it seems like no one wants to talk to you. To fully participate in that exposure, it’s important to work on doing it without falling back to the safety behaviour. That may cause a temporary surge in anxiety, but it’s a way for your brain to learn that the social situation does not involve a lion wanting to eat you and is not a threat to your safety.

Getting personal

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 can’t really think of any specific safety behaviours, though. Perhaps it’s because anxiety isn’t really an issue for me; my issue isn’t with having anxiety that something bad might happen, but rather with strong emotional reactions that are prompted by things happening.

I think I’m more of a kill the fly with a bazooka kind of girl than a safety behaviours 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?

Resources

References

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

18 thoughts on “What Is… a Safety Behaviour”

  1. I have so many safety behaviours a lot of them are control related I have to always be in control and I have to know all the details when I’m going anywhere, for example the exact amount of miles and how long the travel time is, I also have to know all the places we can stop on the way incase my anxiety gets too much. Travel is a major issue for me because it’s the hardest thing to control. Like yourself if I can avoid a situation where it’s likely to trigger anxiety I will! X

    1. I find with travel I actually have an easier time letting go of control than when I’m home. I think it’s probably because I’ve always done backpacking style travelling, and it was something I started doing before my mental health tanked.

  2. Maladaptive behaviours are, I think, more common than we usually realise, partly because many are subconscious and it’s only when we analyse what we’re doing that we notice the patterns. You won’t be alone in avoidance, and you’re right, they give the impression of keeping us safe but typically have detrimental effects of some kind.xx

  3. I count things, organize things, clean things, throw things away, etc. Sort of the opposite of hoarding. I’m an anti hoarder. I love dumping everything and beginning anew when stressed.

  4. Great article. Your brain can only have anxiety for 45 minutes or so? Yikes, what happens after that? I’m afraid that I might go longer. I like your honesty..that you avoid. I avoid stuff too, but push to do what I’m supposed to do..as a normal person in our society. Like I am having people over for Memorial Day on Sunday, because I don’t want to be sitting with my anxiety..and I want to show the world that i am doing what others are doing. I avoid many things though..like the doctors, trips, friends…. When I have to go to the grocery store, I go with anxiety..and I hate it. If I am not feeling well..I speed right out of there. Can’t concentrate. Just pick up stuff and out the door I go. I hate living like this. I am trying to be better though. I wish I felt okay with just being and not having to do all of this stuff. I also found that another safety behavior that I had..was my mom. She was my person…to take the attention off of me I think. I need to try to figure out how to get through this world without that sense of security (or I need to find it in someone else)..although I know I am supposed to be comfortable with myself. 🙂

    1. The 45 minutes is supposed to be the really high level panic, and then that starts to taper down even if anxiety persists.
      I think we probably all need some sort of external sense of security. For me being a guinea pig mom is really important, because even when I’m feeling lousy I still feel confident in my role as a pet mom.

  5. I honestly don’t know where I fit into this scenario. My anxiety generally stems after something has taken place. Sure I have a touch of social anxiety in which I cannot handle large crowds, and though I am very nervous when I am in situations such as that, the anxiety usually kicks my ass after the fact.
    I count my blessing that I haven’t been hit with an anxiety attack that has knocked me to my knees in months. I believe it’s because of the correct medication (Finally) and that I avoid stressful situations at all cost. This is generally why I keep to myself a majority of the time.

  6. I use, I think, preventative behaviors. I’m too scared of leaving my house alone, so I’ll just stay home. Which means I’m home a LOT. I do realize that this behavior only strengthens the anxiety that I feel, but it’s tough to fight through.

  7. I spend a lot of time on my phone doing various things. I also avoid what causes my anxiety. These things only help temporarily. They also are hard to do at times because they don’t always work

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