Safety seeking behaviours are patterns and coping mechanisms that are developed in an attempt to soothe anxiety. They are used as a protection mechanism, a way of distracting oneself to avoid dealing with the overwhelming fears that come from anxiety.
They are learnt behaviours that gradually become patterns used to avoid doing things that perceive to increase anxiety. When life becomes too overwhelming and anxiety kicks in, they become a go-to mechanism for coping. A way to make sense of the seemingly chaotic world around you.
Examples of safety seeking behaviours
If someone suffers from social anxiety, they have a great fear of being in social situations. This may cause them to avoid seeing friends, or putting themselves in any form of social situation that they view as uncomfortable or threatening. They may choose to stay in their home keeping themselves occupied with cleaning to avoid the perceived threat of leaving the house.
Another example is when anxiety causes someone to become paranoid about dying or fearing the death of loved ones. In many cases this will result in the anxious person creating rituals or obsessions about completing certain tasks in particular ways. It is used as a protection mechanism to try to prevent certain outcome and escape the fear of impending doom. They may also limit themselves and loved ones from doing things they fear as ‘dangerous.’
These safety seeking behaviours can severely limit the quality of life for the person living with anxiety, as well as those closest to them.
How do these behaviours stem from anxiety?
Lets begin with the definition of anxiety; “A feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.”
This means that people who suffer from anxiety are constantly living in fear of the ‘unknown’. The fear of not being in control of what happens in their lives. But lets face it, life is full of unknowns. Nothing is certain and no matter how hard we try, we can never control life.
Anxiety is a mental illness that causes these unsettling fears around ‘loosing control’. In the mind of an anxious person, they truly believe that they can control situations and outcomes. Creating safety seeking behaviours around their fears.
It doesn’t matter how irrational or ridiculous the behaviour might seem. When one is consumed by anxiety it is their way of coping. They create ways to make themselves feel ‘safe’. An attempt to make sense of the chaos and fears that control their mind.
Anxiety = unsettling feelings of overwhelm. Leading to irrational safety seeking behaviours, in order to create distractions and safeguards to block the uncontrollable fears.
What is the problem with safety seeking behaviours?
Safety seeking behaviours may appear to soothe and provide some relief from anxiety. But the truth is, these behaviours are only ‘masking’ the problem for a short period of time.
They are used as an attempt to make the anxious person feel ‘in control’. By attending to tasks they can control. For example, organizing your wardrobe in colour coordination. Or cleaning the kitchen until it’s spotless, gives a brief feeling of relief from anxiety.
But the problem is, these safety seeking behaviours can develop into obsessions and increase delusions. This severely impacts the lives of the person living with anxiety as well as their family.
Using safety seeking behavious can severely limit people’s quality of life. The more these behaviours are enforced, the deeper the need for control becomes. Eventually taking over their life and magnifying the symptoms of anxiety.
The more one attempts to ‘control’ life using safety seeking behaviours, the smaller and more limited their life becomes. Plus, it becomes more difficult to break out of these patterns.
The anxiety that comes with safety seeking behaviours causes a constant state of fear and impending doom. Some signs and symptoms to be aware of are listed below.
- Obsession with completing certain rituals in attempt to control and avoid negative outcomes
- Being constantly on high alert ‘fight or flight,’ examining and analyzing everything around you
- Reduction in social activities
- Inability to focus on anything apart from the safety seeking behaviour
- Obsessing over certain outcomes
- Avoiding situations out of fear
- Constant feeling of impending doom
- Highly irritable/agitated
- Unable to sit still or relax
- A constant feeling of urgency
- Inability to think rationally or take on board what others are saying
- Feeling the need to control situations or other people
- Doing the same task repeatedly (like OCD)
- Obsessing and planning every detail
- Inability to trust others to do things e.g. not allowing your partner to help with cleaning or other tasks.
- Believing you need to do it all yourself and be in control
Learning to identify safety seeking behaviours
It can be very difficult to identify if you are using safety seeking behaviours in order to soothe your anxiety. When anxiety hits it can be all consuming and extremely debilitating. From my personal experience with anxiety, it feels something like this:
Anxiety makes you feel like there are a million voices shouting at you, all at once. Your mind feels heavy, overwhelmed and you are unable to make sense of anything. Making decisions feels like an impossible task. You feel a huge burden of pressure and a constant sense of urgency, which you can’t quite understand. It Stops you from getting on with anything meaningful in your life.
At this stage fear and doubt kick in, and safety seeking behaviours begins, as demonstrated in the below diagram.
Breaking these behaviours
It’s difficult to break the pattern of safety seeking behaviours, because they become second nature to the person suffering from anxiety. Developing the awareness to confront them when you are in a state of high anxiety is the most difficult part. At times can feel almost impossible and extremely frightening.
This is because these behaviours were created as a safe guard. When anxiety hits we truly believe they will keep us safe and control the anxiety. An anxious person lives in a constant state of fear, believing that if they don’t perform these safety seeking rituals. Something awful will occur.
Most people who suffer from anxiety disorders will require professional assistance. This will help them to implement coping mechanisms in order to manage their symptoms. The process takes time and can be overwhelming. But by replacing the safety seeking patterns with positive strategies, it will help reduce the symptoms of anxiety over time.
6 strategies for overcoming safety seeking behaviours
1. Identify the trigger
When you begin to experience anxiety, fear and overwhelming thoughts. See if you can identify the ‘trigger,’ the perceived threat. Ask yourself, “What are the fears I am identifying with?” and “What has caused me to become anxious?” Identify if it’s an influence from an external factor, e.g. Walking into a crowd of people. Or an internal factor, e.g. A thought that popped into your mind that something bad is going to happen to you.
2. Sit with the sensations
Try to sit with the fear that has come up for you. How does it feel in your body? What are the sensations that arise? Increased heart rate, trembling hands, heat in your chest or stomach etc. Try not to get caught up in the train of though around the fear. Just see if you can turn your attention to your body and it’s sensations.
3. Assess the fear
Once you feel a bit calmer and have been able to identify the bodily sensations and the fear/s. Try to assess the fear, ask yourself, “Is this fear life threatening to me or others?” Ninety nine percent of the time, the answer will be no.
4. Rate the fear
Once you have identified that the fear is not life threatening or going to harm you in any way. Ask yourself, “What is the worst case scenario if I choose not to respond to this fear?” You may want to firstly gauge the outcome on a scale of 1 – 10. 1 meaning nothing bad will happen/low risk, to 10 being catastrophic/very high risk. This well help you to gauge if you are perceiving the threat to be ‘greater than it is’.
5. Identify the ‘story’ behind the fear
Fears are often stemmed from the stories we tell ourselves. We reinforce these stories on a daily basis therefore becoming our reality. Identify what is the story you are telling yourself surrounding the fear? For example. “If I go on the train today, I will feel overwhelmed and people will notice I’m anxious and judge me. This will lead to me having a panic attack and embarrassing myself in public.”
The stories you tell yourself continue to reinforce your fears. By continuing to believe these stories, you allow them to control you. Therefore, stopping you from doing the things that are important in you life. The stories cause you to cling to safety seeking behaviours in an attempt to avoid the perceived danger.
6. Challenge your perception
Perceived threats are often an ‘exaggeration’ of fears created in our minds, due to anxiety. The fears can be gradually minimized by challenging your perception using the above steps.
With practice, you will become more confident in facing your fears. Discovering that the perceived threat is generally ‘never as bad as it seems’. Challenging your perception, through assessing the fear and identifying the stories behind it. Means the fear begins to ‘loose its power’. It becomes nothing more than a story or a delusion.
It takes time and courage to replace safety seeking behaviours with positive coping mechanisms. It’s a process of training your mind to process information in a completely new way. At first it will seem scary, but the first step is always the hardest. Remember the more you practice this process, the less power and control these fears have over your life.
By learning to break safety seeking behaviours, your life will feel less restricted and controlled by fear. You will discover that it’s you who has the power over your anxiety, rather than anxiety having power over you.
What safety seeking behaviours do you use to cope with anxiety? Share your comments below.
Related Article: How to Overcome the Fear of Not Enough