The Lure of Safety Seeking Behaviours
When we feel anxious we often try to reduce these uncomfortable and often terrifying feelings by engaging in behaviours designed to restore our calm.
Can you recall a time when you have made an excuse to avoid a social event because you felt you would be revealed as 'odd and have nothing interesting to say', or you left the event early in an attempt to escape your feelings of anxiety? Perhaps you always check out where the toilets are upon arriving at a new unfamiliar place in order to ensure you know where the toilets are in case you need to go to the loo? Perhaps you use distraction to get through a difficult situation, or deliberately calm your breathing as you believe you will be overwhelmed by your fear? Maybe you avoid eye contact in social situations in case someone asks you a question and you are concerned you won't have the answer and will look daft? These are all examples of 'safety seeking' behaviours.
Most, if not all, people can recall times in their life when they engaged in 'safety seeking' behaviours. But what effect do they actually have in maintaining the problem? You will of course argue that they make us feel less anxious as any form of escape or avoidance brings about a tremendous sense of relief in the moment.
However, in the long-term these behaviours prevent us from disconfirming unhelpful, often inaccurate beliefs. For example, if we always seek out the toilets on arrival to a new unfamiliar location, we then don't ever find out that we would not lose control of our bowels or bladder anyway. We will always believe that locating the toilets in advance averted the catastrophe, rather than understanding that we have an impressive amount of control over our own bodies, even when we feel desperate for the loo. This is an example of a 'reassurance seeking' safety behaviour.
If we desperately try to calm our breathing with breathing techniques we will always believe that in doing so, we prevent ourselves from suffocating, rather than understanding that the body actually manages to keep itself breathing whilst we are asleep so why on earth does it need our deliberate help when we are awake?
When we avoid eye contact with others in a social situation in the hope that others won't speak to us because they will realise that we are 'odd and have nothing interesting to say', we will sometimes draw more attention to ourselves from our lack of interaction with others, rather than making ourselves 'invisible'. Yes, the behaviour designed to prevent us from being revealed as odd can actually have the unintended consequence of actually creating this impression.
Further, avoiding eye contact can deter others from speaking to us, having the desired effect, but then how will we every truly find out if we actually do have something interesting to say if we always avoid interaction with others?
If we often make excuses not to go to a social event or make excuses to leave an event, we will likely believe that avoidance or escape protected us from being revealed as a 'boring person' or a 'trembling wreck'. But what if the avoidance or escape behaviour just maintains our negative beliefs and if we actually went to the event or didn't escape we could find out something different?
By carrying out the safety-seeking behaviour we reinforce the idea that the situation would be catastrophic if we didn't manage it in this way.
Safety seeking behaviours are common with all kinds of anxiety whether it be Phobias, Panic, Social Anxiety, OCD, PTSD, Illness Anxiety and many, many more problems. In treatment, we work with people to reduce their safety behaviours and eventually abandon them. Often we help people to 'do the opposite' of what their urge is, as in doing so they are telling their body there is nothing to fear and that have the ability to cope no matter the circumstance.
We are human beings, we have a tremendous ability to cope in extreme adversity! Sometimes we just need to show ourselves this by freeing ourselves of behaviours designed with good intention but that leave us trapped and crippled.
Liberate yourself, always travel in the direction of your fear, it will be worth every moment.