By Joan Swart, PsyD, MBA
Types of safety behaviors to reduce worry
When we worry we try all kinds of unhelpful worry behaviors and strategies to reduce our distress. These quick fixes ultimately only give temporary relief from the cause of the fear.
People do whatever they can to avoid unpleasant situations: avoiding eye contact or sticking with one familiar friend at social gatherings, or not attending at all. This avoidance behavior gives a short-term relief but always comes with a long-term cost.
Distracting Attention and Suppressing Thoughts
Some people suppress their thoughts and keep busy with other activities to distract from their worries. Some people do anything to escape from their worries and responsibilities: becoming obsessed with competing and gambling, or turning to alcohol or other drugs. These things are, at best, a quick fix that soon dissipates.
Everyone procrastinates every now and then, but some people chronically avoid difficult tasks by deliberately looking for distractions around them. Even though you really dislike doing chores, you might start cleaning your house instead of studying for your exam. Even boring tasks are better than scary ones.
For some, the act of decision-making feels like a huge risk. So instead of taking action, you seek more data or repeatedly ask for other opinions. “It’s impossible to decide”, you think, and “I can’t risk getting it wrong.”
Seeking reassurance means needing approval from others for everything you decide on. You seek reassurance from your spouse, boss or friends to put your mind at ease. When constant reassurance becomes a habit, it makes you less able to face issues on your own.
Another behavior that gives short-term relief is defensiveness. When you think you are being criticized or judged, you react defensively to prove your worth. This undermines your self-confidence and the way you think others value you. Remember, what you perceive as criticism might not be real, or intended.
For many people, it’s simply too unpleasant to dwell on their problems and responsibilities, and they will do anything to escape. They drink alcohol or use drugs. They become obsessed with competing, gambling, or criminal activities because they prefer the rush to feeling afraid. These things are only a quick fix, a crutch that quickly dissipates, leaving the fear stronger than ever.