Thursday 7 April 2011

Comfort Zones – How Much of our Lives Consist of Safety Behaviours?

The concept of Safety Behaviours (or Safety-Seeking Behaviours) is a familiar one to those working with anxiety from a CBT perspective.

According to David M. Clark (1999),

Salkovskis (1988, 1991) defined a safety-seeking behaviour as ``a behaviour which is performed in order to prevent or minimise a feared catastrophe'' and suggested that such behaviours often explain why the non-occurrence of a feared event fails to change patients' negative beliefs. For example, in the case of cardiac concerned panic patients, he suggested that they continue to think that they might die in a panic attack because every time they have panic attacks, they sit down, rest, slow down their breathing or engage in some other safety-seeking behaviour and believe, erroneously, that performing the behaviour is the only reason they did not die.

Clark goes on to give the following examples of safety behaviours associated with a patient's fear of blushing. First he describes the feared outcome, then the safety behaviours intended to prevent that outcome:

``My face (and neck) will go red.''

Keep cool (open windows, drink cold water, avoid coffee, wear thin clothes).

Avoid eye contact. If in a meeting, pretend to be writing notes.

Keep topic of conversation away from `difficult' issues.

Tell myself the man isn't really attractive; ``He's no more than a 2 (out of 10) for attractiveness''.

``If I do blush, people will notice.''

Wear clothes (scarf, high collar) that would hide part of the blush.

Wear make-up to hide the blush.

Put hands over face; hide face with long hair.

Stand in a dark part of the room.

``If people notice, they will think badly of me.''

Provide an alternative explanation for the red face; e.g. ``it’s hot in here'', ``I'm in a terrible rush today'', ``I'm recovering from flu'', etc.

The key disadvantage of safety behaviours, of course, is that they prevent disconfirmation of catastrophic beliefs, by making sure that they don’t get tested against reality. We never find out what would happen if we didn’t cover up the blush, if we said what we really think, if we drank from a cup someone else had touched.

Over their lifetimes, anxiety sufferers often engage in broader strategies of safety-seeking, which simply become part of their lifestyle. A socially anxious person, for instance, may choose their hobbies, their friends, even their spouse, in a way which is designed to protect themselves from social danger (i.e. negative judgment). Their hobbies may be solitary, their friends may be undemanding and task-oriented, their spouse may be happy to mostly stay at home and to concentrate on the domestic side of their lives.

Joining a religious group may also be a tempting safety-seeking strategy for some people, as there is usually a strong focus on group-belonging, and on directing negative judgments at people outside the group rather than within it.

The workaholic high-achiever, to take another example, seems to have found a way to guarantee positive rather than negative judgments from their peers. Of course, like all such strategies, this tends only to work in the short-term, bringing other problems in the longer-term, such as damage to family relationships, burnout etc. On the other side of the coin, the stay-at-home example above may also lead to its own negative career consequences, due to poor social networking skills etc.

There is food for thought here: to the extent that any of us are socially anxious and feel the need to ward off negative judgment, how much may we have built our lifestyles around this need?

Finally, widespread safety behaviours can also be found outside of these more individual examples. Superstitious behaviours, which are very common in most human populations, are classic examples of safety behaviours: touching wood is definitely ``a behaviour which is performed in order to prevent or minimise a feared catastrophe'', as is avoiding the number 13, and so many other everyday superstitious behaviours.

Perhaps the concept of Safety Behaviours needs to be a familiar one to all of us, and not just those working with anxiety…

References, further reading

Clark, D.A. & Beck, A.T. (2009) Cognitive Therapy of Anxiety Disorders. New York: Guilford Press.

Clark, D.M. Anxiety disorders: Why they persist and how to treat them. Behaviour Research and Therapy 37 (1999)

Vyse, S. A. (2000) Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. USA: OUP.


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