When life moves a pawn, then it’s our turn. Adversity, setbacks, or stressful situations are a part of the story. The other part is written by us. Depending on the coping strategy we use, that story can end better or worse.
In a general sense, there are no good or bad coping strategies per se. It all depends on the situation. In some circumstances it is convenient to fight and in others it is better to escape. Sometimes it pays to persevere, other times it is better to give up. We need to have the emotional intelligence necessary to know which strategy is the most appropriate at all times.
However, most of the time we act automatically, applying the “default” coping strategies that we have already used on other occasions. If we tend to apply avoidance strategies, we are likely to engage in what is known as “safety seeking behaviors.”
What are Safety Behaviors?
Safety seeking behaviors are those behaviors that we implement to prevent or minimize the effects of a situation or event that we perceive as threatening. Therefore, its main objective is to make us feel safe and almost immediately alleviate the fear or anxiety that these situations generate.
Safety behaviors are strategies we use to feel more secure in the face of a feared situation. In many cases, these are covert behaviors through which we cling to some resource that makes us feel safer and more protected, helping us to stay in an environment that is hostile to us, reducing the level of anxiety.
In fact, in our day-to-day lives, we tend to implement different safety behaviors without being aware of it. Putting our hands in our pockets when we feel uncomfortable or resting our hands somewhere if they are shaking are some examples of safety behaviors.
Talking a lot to avoid tense silences, ignoring a person who makes us feel uncomfortable, sitting at the end of a meeting room to avoid attracting attention, playing with the pencil when we are nervous or looking away when we think that a person may observe us are other everyday safety behaviors that help us get through some bitter social situations better.
Partial coping with reality is not a good idea
The problem with avoidance coping strategies is that, although they produce momentary relief from stress and discomfort, in the medium and long term they tend to fuel anxiety and avoidance behaviors. In fact, safety behaviors are also known as partial or defensive coping strategies and specialists in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy recommend inhibiting or abandoning them completely.
Safety behaviors can become an impediment to treat anxiety on a therapeutic level. People who suffer from panic attacks and agoraphobia, for example, usually sit near the door to be able to get out faster or only move around areas near hospitals or pharmacies where they can help them.
The continuous checks carried out by people with obsessive-compulsive disorder are another example of safety behaviors to calm down, as well as putting on a lot of makeup so that people do not notice the blush, in the case of women who suffer from social anxiety or fear of speaking in public.
Hypochondriacs, on the other hand, often resort to “miracle drugs” to feel calmer and continually go to the doctor’s to rule out suspected serious pathologies. Obviously, all these safety behaviors are not aimed at curing the underlying problem, but at minimizing the symptoms in a timely manner.
For that reason, safety behaviors are thought to work against anxiety disorders by preventing disconfirming experiences of danger from occurring. If an obsessive person does not stop washing his hands continuously for fear of contamination, for example, he will not be able to verify that nothing is happening if he washes his hands less frequently.
Focusing on safety signals reduces the processing of information related to the perceived threat, preventing the person from ascertaining for himself if the situation is dangerous or not. In fact, in many cases, safety behaviors end up consolidating the feeling of danger. For example, if a person with social anxiety talks quickly to get out of the stressful situation as soon as possible, that behavior is signaling to his body and brain that he is in a dangerous situation and must do something to keep safe, which ends up reinforcing his fear.
This same mechanism can also prevent the person from developing a sense of mastery over the environment and its own responses, limiting, therefore, his ability to cope, since the possibility of facing the feared situations will always depend on the availability of these “external painkillers”. In other words, the person ends up developing a dependence on these security behaviors, which prevents him from developing the self-confidence and security that he needs to adaptively face his fears and anguish.
Anxiety tells him to choose security, but many times to overcome certain fears it takes effort and experiencing a certain degree of discomfort.
When can safety behaviors be helpful?
While it is true that safety behaviors can lead to dependence on “external painkillers”, which can reinforce the idea that a situation is dangerous, it is no less true that in some cases they can help people to gradually expose themselves to anxiety and distressing stimuli maintaining a degree of control, which may help reduce fear and avoidance.
This means that safety behaviors can be used when they allow us to gradually increase our tolerance for feared situations or those that cause us discomfort. We can use them as a stepping stone to reduce anxiety as we deal with those situations.
However, we must remain vigilant so that they do not become an “external sedative” on which we become dependent because in that case they will not help us, but will become a partial coping strategy of reality. In practice, it is as if we decide to look at only half of the world ignoring the other part.
Milosevic, I. & Radomsky, A. (2008) Safety behaviour does not necessarily interfere with exposure therapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy; 46: 1111– 1118.
Sloan, T. & Telch, M. J. (2002) The effects of safety-seeking behavior and guided threat reappraisal on fear reduction during exposure: An experimental investigation. Behaviour Research and Therapy; 40: 235–251.
Rachman, S. J. (1983) The modification of agoraphobic avoidance behaviour: Some fresh possibilities. Behaviour Research and Therapy; 21: 567–574.