By Joan Swart, PsyD, MBA
What are safety behaviors?
Safety behaviors are actions we take, as well as actions we avoid taking, in order to reduce our anxiety. To explain, we use the example of avoidance; an unhelpful safety behavior that gets in the way of our development and well-being, as well as our own happiness and that of those we care about.
Strategies to manage fight-or-flight reactions
When we feel scared our FFF response or guard dog gets activated. Our rational mind often has no idea why. All we know is that we feel scared or vulnerable. Something feels wrong, so we start looking around us in case something really is wrong.
First, we scan our environment for danger. If we can’t locate the danger, we will try to find rational explanations as to why we are feeling afraid, such as something in the future. Either way, we end up finding some reason to be anxious and our fear increases.
Fear is confused with real danger
The feeling of fear then gets confused with actual danger. We act on our feelings of fear without fully understanding why we have them and take the action to avoid or escape. By leaving or avoiding the situation we often experience a sudden decrease in anxiety.
Avoidance is not the answer
However, each time we choose to avoid a certain type of situation, it results in a stronger connection between the situation and perceived danger. Next time you encounter a similar situation your amygdala will bark louder and louder to make sure you continue to avoid it.
Safety behaviors are not a long-term solution
Safety behaviors like avoidance might reduce our feelings of anxiety short term, but they also make us more dependent on us using them in similar situations the future. The more we avoid something, the more we come to fear it, and the more we are motivated to keep avoiding it.