How Our Safety Behaviors Feed Anxiety
Part 3 of the Anxiety Jedi Series reveals the cost of shielding ourselves.
Posted January 16, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- “Safety behavior” is a term for acting protectively when you don’t need to.
- Safety behaviors can interfere with acting your values and learning that feared outcomes are unlikely or not as bad as you think.
- To change anxiety over the long run, you have to learn to recognize and reduce your safety behaviors (tolerate anxiety in the short term).
When I arrived at the University of Texas Austin for my doctorate, I was eager to begin my research in the Anxiety Lab under Dr. Michael Telch. Not your typical nerdy scientist, Mike picked me up from the airport in a purple tank top, tan and muscular. The man was not only brawny but brilliant and brash—important qualities for someone who put subjects with claustrophobia into a small, dark closet in the name of science.
It was there that I first learned about safety behaviors—SBs for short.
SBs are anything we do to cope with an imagined threat and reduce anxiety. The term was first coined in cognitive behavioral therapy, but all forms of psychotherapy recognize that these avoidance moves are often at the heart of why we stay stuck. Research shows that SBs are a powerful maintaining factor in all anxiety disorders.
Learning to recognize SBs was an absolute paradigm shift for me. It was like I had been looking at a stereogram—those color dot patterns that if you stare at them long enough, a 3D image pops out—an umbrella. Suddenly I saw SBs everywhere. We were constantly shielding ourselves from the rain in subtle and obvious ways... and not recognizing the price.
Why We Are Pulled to Do Safety Behaviors
You may not realize it, but part of your brain (the amygdala) continuously monitors the environment for physical, psychological or social threats to your well-being. In our evolutionary past, these might be predators, accidents or illness (oh my), or signs that relationship status or attachment might be at risk. Any possibility of harm activates your anxiety alarm system (see Part 1), alerting you to the danger and fueling protective avoidance behaviors: freeze, flee, resist, defend, control or fight. Feeling safer, your anxiety drops, and that palpable relief reinforces (strengthens) the behavior. This is why SBs persist and become habit.
If the threat is real (you’ve been put on work probation), then your anxiety is a “true alarm” and motivates an adaptive action (step up your game). But just to play safe, our brains overestimate the likelihood or severity of threats. We are built to expect bad news. This is why our anxiety is often a “false alarm” (see Part 2, coming soon). SBs are protective behaviors in response to a false or exaggerated alarm. We wield our umbrella even though the clouds hold no rain.
Spotting Your Safety Behaviors
Some SBs are obvious. If you have health anxiety, you might be hypervigilant for symptoms, constantly clean surfaces, or get unnecessary medical tests. If you fear being rejected by others, you may avoid eye contact, going on dates, or talking to people at work. If you are worried about safety at home, you may check repeatedly that your doors are locked and the stove is off, or purchase elaborate security systems.
But many SBs are less obvious, and the truth is: we all do them. We over-plan trips or stay close to home. We work excessively (to avoid negative judgment) and strive to be perfect (to avoid mistakes). And why are we forever on our phones? We’re checking texts, emails, and social media to make sure we don’t fall behind or miss out.
And when we sense a threat to our relationships, we may be pulled to do SBs as well. We might reflexively strive to please others to avoid conflict, or seek reassurance that they aren’t angry with us. Or we might criticize, control, or attempt to change our partner when we feel anxious that important needs will not be met. SBs are what we do in a threat-state; they are self-protective moves to alleviate distress in the moment rather than forging a collaborative, long-term solution.
Thinking can also be an SB. When we worry or ruminate, we are doing threat mitigation: analyzing possible risk scenarios, mentally preparing for different outcomes, rehearsing conversations in our head, endlessly debating decisions. The marker of a mental safety behavior is repetition: endlessly going over the same content in an effort to increase certainty and feel more prepared and settled. It’s mostly a fruitless effort because the past is over and the future uncertain. But SBs create the illusion of control, which is why they grow in strength and number.
The Problem With Safety Behaviors
I remember asking Mike: “What’s wrong with a little extra safety?” He gave me a withering look. Soon I would discover the surprising irony: SBs may reduce anxiety in the short term, but they keep you in threat mode and maintain anxiety over the long term.
How? The first reason is quite interesting: What we do shapes our reality. When we act as if a situation is high-risk, the amygdala actually observes our behavior and infers something is wrong. If you start googling hospitals over a mild fever, your amygdala perks up: clearly there is danger, or else you’d be watching Ted Lasso right now. Snap at your co-worker and your amygdala will turn on; playfully shrug and your amygdala will assume all is well. SBs feed-back and inform the brain about the world.
Even more problematic, SBs keep you from having experiences that might disconfirm the danger. Suppose I was in a scary car accident and now my amygdala triggers anxiety whenever I get in the driver’s seat. My natural response is to hand my keys to my partner (safety behavior). Three months later, I’m still stranded at home, afraid. Why? I can’t talk myself out of fear using statistics. We need to see to believe. My amygdala needs the direct experience of cruising the freeways without harm to revise its threat assessment. This is the reason exposure therapy (engaging the threat instead of doing your SBs) is a core component in the treatment of anxiety. Exposure is about facing your fears so you can directly observe that the harm you expect is unlikely or not as bad as you thought, and you can handle it. I need to start driving to challenge my threat beliefs and build trust at an emotional level.
But there’s a deeper cost. Have you noticed that SBs are always “away” moves rather than “toward” moves? They are about self-protection rather than connection, rigid control rather than flexible response, a no instead of a yes. Think about how your SBs have stopped you from learning to rock-climb or play guitar or pursue a different career path. How they keep you from taking risks at work, sharing vulnerably with friends, or simply being more present in the moment. SBs push loved ones away, when what we want is more intimacy and connection. This is not who we want to be. If you want your values to be your compass, SBs take you in the opposite direction.
Anxiety Jedi skill #3: Recognize & Resist Your Safety Behaviors
In order to fully engage your relationships and life path, you must first recognize your SBs: What are all the ways you wield that umbrella? Look for behaviors that feel urgent, rigid, aimed at reducing distress in the short term. Then (the hard part), practice resisting your SBs. You have to be willing to face the rain clouds: to risk anticipated judgment, disappointment, failure, loss, and rejection. (You can see why the first skill of the Anxiety Jedi is learning to mindfully accept a surge of anxiety in the moment). Pausing instead of doing your safety behaviors creates the space to open up, engage the full spectrum of your experience, and to choose to act your values instead.
Some additional good news: When you put the umbrella down, you see it doesn’t rain as often as you expect. As Tom Petty sang: “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.” And when it does storm occasionally, you develop the courage, confidence, and skill to navigate your way in wet clothing toward what matters. This is how we show up for our life and others, rain or shine.
Blakey, S. M., & Abramowitz, J. S. (2016). The effects of safety behaviors during exposure therapy for anxiety: Critical analysis from an inhibitory learning perspective. Clinical psychology review, 49, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2016.07.002
LeDoux, J. E., Moscarello, J., Sears, R., & Campese, V. (2017). The birth, death and resurrection of avoidance: a reconceptualization of a troubled paradigm. Molecular psychiatry, 22(1), 24–36. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2016.166
Telch, M. J., & Zaizar, E. D. (2020). Safety behaviors. In J. S. Abramowitz & S. M. Blakey (Eds.), Clinical handbook of fear and anxiety: Maintenance processes and treatment mechanisms (pp. 27–44). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000150-002