“I better double check just to be on the safe side”
“I’ll bring this with me just in case something happens”
“What if something goes wrong, I better do x’y’z, just to be safe”
All of these statements and many many more are driven by anxiety and the desire to feel in control of situations.
As humans, we like feeling safe. Safety is a fundamental part of human well-being. Feeling safe allows us fast access to the present moment, to feel calm, relaxed and at ease and can reduce anxiety largely.
As humans, understandably - we also don’t like feeling in danger. Naturally, danger brings risk, consequence and a feeling of threat. When in danger we are less likely to feel well, less likely to be focussed on the present moment and extremely likely to experience feelings of anxiety.
Take for example if you were faced with a hungry, angry looking lion. What is a likely response? Here we would be experiencing a very real threat and a very real amount of danger. In this scenario to run away would certainly be wise as it will protect us from being potentially killed by the lion.
What happens when we experience similar feelings of anxiety but no immediate threat is present? What happens if we find ourselves in our life running from that lion, that feared person, place or thing, but yet we find what we fear isn’t actually present or the feared situation isn’t actually occurring? Have you ever felt like you’re running from the lion but you’ve never actually encountered the lion? Focussing on things such as “but what if it happens” or similar statements are all often ways of thinking which create anxiety and cause us to respond with behaviours which are often unhelpful and maladaptive.
Our minds are quick to play tricks on us. I often say to clients, please remember that thoughts are … well very much so “just thoughts”. The harm we experience from our thoughts is often driven by the emotional or behavioural experience or reaction driven by the thoughts.
Safety behaviours are behaviours which create a sense of safety and lead us to believe we are keeping ourselves safe from whatever threat, risk or danger we believe is real or actually occurring during times we experience anxiety.
People will often believe that safety behaviours are an effective way to cope and may not realise that these behaviours prolong anxiety and keep anxiety alive and very often, people may believe these behaviours to be a helpful answer as engaging in these behaviours can bring short term relief.
However, let me say that again, short term relief as opposed to long term, and what we will commonly see is repetitive engagement in these behaviours which perpetuates the anxiety cycle. A past client of mine once put it perfectly and said “these behaviours make your world eventually get smaller and smaller” and while you may feel in control, these behaviours take control and lead to more and more avoidance of the actual problem or worry.
The more we engage with safety behaviours, the more our brain begins to believe and form patterns of thought that this is what we ‘need’ to do in order to cope with the anxiety we are feeling.
An example of a safety behaviour may simply be this:
When anxious it is common to experience many different physical sensations. A common one may be to have tension headaches. For some people, often when anxious they may experience a headache. The more the person experiences the headache, often they may become concerned about the headache and now the headache caused by anxiety has become another source of anxiety as the person begins to worry about what is causing the headache (overlooking that it may be anxiety driven)
Now, before I continue this example and identify where a safety behaviour comes into play, please understand that I am by no means underestimating the need for certain things to keep us well in our life, however - what I am trying to draw your attention toward is when we become reliant on certain things and believe they are the only way to ease the anxiety of the problem (while not actually dealing with the cognitive and behavioural attributes of the problem), we can often become stuck.
To continue - the person now worried about the headache discovers that when they stay hydrated they are less likely to experience headaches.. BINGO.… or is that the answer?
This person has now linked a level control over the headache with drinking water which in theory is true. However, where this becomes a problem is for example where a person starts to believe that drinking water is the answer to the problem and is the answer to ease anxiety, often focusing on this before the problem even occurs.
Often this may manifest in ways such as a person not even experiencing the headache to start with, however they have a fear of a headache and there is a perceived threat of “what if I get the headache” so in response, for example they may develop a safety behaviour of bringing a bottle of water out every-time they leave the house… “just in case”
To clarify, we are not just talking about headaches here. This applies across a range and multitude of scenarios and I hope this has somewhat shed light on the manifestation of what a safety behaviour may typically look like.
In my next blog, which will be a second part to this blog - I will go further into detail on safety behaviours and ways we can challenge and overcome these patterns of behaviour using methods of Cognitive Behavioural intervention.
If you have any questions on any of the content highlighted in this blog or have any questions regarding attending therapy and how CBT can help, please feel free to get in touch with me on firstname.lastname@example.org