“Help! I can’t stop avoiding the thing I’m anxious about!” How to stop safety behaviours

“Help! I can’t stop avoiding the thing I’m anxious about!” How to stop safety behaviours. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

A very common issue people struggle with is anxiety.

We define anxiety as persistent worry that we can’t control or stop. It’s a truly unpleasant feeling similar to losing control, feeling highly overwhelmed, or like you can’t stop your mind from racing.

Anxiety is often triggered by stressful situations such as dealing with school or university study, large volumes of work, difficulties or changes in a relationship, or adjusting to unfamiliar situations.

The situations vary, but the underlying cycle remains the same.

Let’s apply the science to help deal with your anxiety now!

What are safety behaviours?

Huh? Safety behaviours?

Nobody likes the feeling of anxiety at all. We tend to try and get rid of this intense feeling as fast as we possibly can. We sometimes develop patterns of behaviour that are designed to drive away our anxiety as fast as possible.

Here are some examples, using a simple A.B.C. framework.

Let’s use the example of Samantha, who is fictional.

Antecedent Situation (A)Safety Behaviour (B)Consequence (C)
Samantha feels anxious about her university workload because she hasn’t done much study recentlyShe decides to procrastinate by watching Netflix rather than going to lectures or studying.Her anxious feelings subside as her focus shifts away.
But, it comes back the next day when she looks at her student emails.

These behaviours are very effective at reducing our anxiety behaviours…

…but only for a little while.

Anxiety tends to return when the next situation presents itself. That’s how safety behaviours work.

Safety Behaviours are a pattern of behaviours that can perpetuate anxiety by preventing people from confronting their fears and learning to tolerate anxiety.

Other common examples of safety behaviours include:

  • avoidance (i.e. staying away from university),
  • reassurance seeking (i.e. repeatedly asking others if she has the right answer on the upcoming multiple choice quiz because she hasn’t understand the content), or
  • coping using substances (i.e. consuming alcohol, drugs, junk food or smoking) to escape or numb the anxious feelings.

It’s not uncommon to react to these observations by saying, ‘I can see now that I’ve been really avoiding that thing I was worried about.’

Here’s what to do next!

How do I challenge my safety behaviours?

There is one word above all others, here: confront.

To overcome anxious situations, we need to confront the anxious situation head on, without using safety behaviours. This is because anxious situations tend to repeat or persist unless we tackle them directly.

There are several ways to do this using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) when working with a psychologist.

It’s often helpful to ask yourself what are the reasons, beliefs or attitudes that lead you to feeling like you needed or wanted to avoid the feared situation in the first place.

For Samantha, the reasons were that she had not done enough effective preparation or study. It’s common for people to have negative beliefs about themselves that drive these behaviours such as, ‘I often struggled to do well at school, so I started to think that I wasn’t good enough or was stupid.’ or ‘Everyone else always does better than me, so I started feeling bad about what I am capable of doing.’

A psychologist can help you to understand for yourself that these beliefs are unhelpful and are based on limited or biased information. Providing alternative ways of thinking is often a helpful exercise such as, ‘It’s possible that if I persist in my studies, that I will be able to do well at university!’

Next, develop a plan for reducing the behaviour. Several techniques are helpful such as gradually exposing yourself to increasing anxious situations (graduated exposure), or becoming more comfortable with uncomfortable feelings using progressive relaxation techniques (Mindfulness) or problem solving techniques such as breaking large tasks down into smaller chunks.

Finally, be brave, confront the feared situations and commit yourself to ongoing review with professional help such as a psychologist.

You are welcome to partner with one of our psychologists as you seek to reduce the anxiety in your own life.

Attuned Psychology Team

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