Social Anxiety Safety Behaviors

Safety behaviors are an important concept in anxiety and facing your fears. This article will give an overview of how they work and how you should approach them, then give a thorough list of ones related to socializing.

About safety behaviors

Safety behaviors are things you can do to make a nervousness-causing situation more tolerable. For example, someone who's afraid of public speaking may only do it if they take some quick acting anti-anxiety medication before they get on stage. Someone with a fear of driving might use their car, but avoid highways and rush hour. A person with fears around getting nauseous in public might see movies, but always pick an aisle seat so they have an easy escape route if they feel sick.

Some safety behaviors are really obvious. Even if you don't use the term "safety behavior" you know you use them and why. Like someone could be well aware of the fact that they can only talk to people at a party if they've had a few drinks to dull their nerves. Others are more subtle. They may only reduce your anxiety a bit, and you don't consciously realize you do them. For example, someone may be able to have conversations at a party, but not notice that they avoid eye contact so the interaction doesn't feel as overwhelming.

Safety behaviors can be things you've always done in a particular setting. They can also be one-off coping mechanisms that you come up with on the spot in a scary new scenario.

An action that functions as a safety behavior for one person may not have the same use to someone else (e.g., Person A may get uneasy in public, and always wears headphones to help insulate themselves from everyone else. Person B may just like listening to music.) One person's deliberate safety behavior may be another's uncontrollable anxiety symptom (e.g., Person A consciously controls their discomfort by choosing not to speak much, Person B is so full by nerves they can't think of anything to say).

A few safety behaviors fall into a gray area, and seem like reasonable, healthy coping strategies. In these cases it comes down to intent. If you use a behavior every now and then, and don't feel you have to do it, it's not a safety behavior. If you do the same thing, but think you can't get through a situation without it, it is one. For example, being willing to tell people you're feeling anxious can be a great way to take some mental pressure off yourself. However, if you feel you can't talk to anyone unless you bring up that you're nervous every five minutes, then it's a crutch.

Problems with safety behaviors

The main issue with safety behaviors is that they help you get through your anxiety in the short term, but can perpetuate it over the long run. That's because one of the best ways to deal with anxiety is to slowly face the things the scare you and get used to them. When you use safety behaviors you're sending the message to yourself, "I only got through that situation because I had help. It's still a threat. I couldn't handle it on my own."

Safety behaviors can be a reason why some people try facing their fears then report it didn't work for them. They felt like they were exposing themselves to their fear, but they weren't dealing with it head on. They used enough safety behaviors that they went up against a watered down version of it. They faced it "on paper", but not in an effective way.

A second downside of safety behaviors is they can sometimes backfire and bring on the outcomes you were hoping to avoid in the first place. Someone may be anxious in social situations because they worry about acting awkward and being judged for it. But all their safety behaviors may make them seem more odd and bumbling than if they did none of that and just came across as a tad nervous at first. For example, someone may feel uneasy when it's their turn to talk, and speak really quickly to get it over with, which stands out to everyone way more than if they took their time and maybe stumbled over a word or two.

Problem #3 is that safety behaviors can cause you to focus too much on watching your anxiety levels, which often makes them worse. For example, someone may hang out with their friends, but only when they have a ready-made excuse to leave whenever they get too nervous. Knowing they have that escape hatch can cause them to get stuck in their head, thinking things like, "How anxious do I feel right now? Is it enough to go home?... I feel my heart starting to beat faster. Is that a sign I'm getting worked up? Oh god, it is isn't it? Oh man, I feel so gross, I hate this... ... ...okay, I think I'm calming down. I won't take off yet. Ugh, but now my hands are shaking..."

Finally, some safety behaviors are straight up bad for you. Obviously, using drugs like alcohol can damage your health. Other behaviors can reduce your quality of life, like if someone never drives on the freeway, and adds an hour to their commute each day.

Aim to drop your safety behaviors

Since safety behaviors keep your anxiety going, you should try to figure out which ones you use, then stop doing them. Taking away your safety net will increase your discomfort in the near term, but reduce it over the long haul. You'll finally get a chance to learn firsthand you can handle your fears without any anxiety-reducing conditions in place.

That's the ideal anyway, but like so much advice on anxiety, following it is easier said than done. Two questions are:

  1. Is it okay to stick with your safety behaviors at first, as you gradually face a fear?
  2. Is it okay to keep some safety behaviors forever, even if it's not technically the right thing to do?

Mental health professionals are split on the first question. Some believe that as uncomfortable as it may be at first, it's better to try to jettison your safety behaviors from the get go, and start learning as soon as you can that you can manage without their help. They'll also point out that, at least when it comes to socializing-related safety behaviors, they can have that added drawback of making you look more awkward. Others think it's fine to hold onto your safety behaviors in the early steps of facing your fear, as it may help you stay in settings you wouldn't be able to tolerate otherwise. Though you should still try to give them up as you progress.

Personally, I'm in the second camp. I think it's okay to stick with some of your safety behaviors for a while, if you're strategically using them as a bridge to eventually being able to handle your fears without them. I think it's just pragmatic and realistic. Anxiety can be really unpleasant, and sometimes we need all the help we can get when we're facing it on purpose, even if that assistance isn't perfect in theory.

The key is to have a reason to temporarily keep your safety behavior. For example, the idea of going to a concert alone makes you really anxious. Partially that's because you have fears related to being on your own, like that everyone will judge you for having no friends. But you also haven't been to many live shows, and the environment is unfamiliar and intimidating. A safety behavior may be to see bands with a friend. Having company won't do anything to ease your worries about being alone, but it will let you get used to being in those venues. Once just being at concerts doesn't feel like such a big deal, you'll be in a better spot to push yourself to go to some alone.

For another example, say you're trying to get used to talking to new people at parties, and control your nerves by not sharing too much about yourself. Your secretive attitude could make you seem more awkward, but you may decide you can deal with that consequence for a short while. Not talking about yourself lets you get accustomed to the other aspects of conversation, and once you're no longer afraid of those, you can gradually start opening up to people.

On the other hand, if using a safety behavior isn't a lead-in to a more productive way of acting, there's no reason to keep it around. For example, you're otherwise able to make conversation and do it all the time, but manage your anxiety by not looking people in the eye. In this case avoiding eye contact isn't a stepping stone to anything. You already know how to talk to people. You just need to push yourself to do it while not looking away.

Regarding the second question - is it ever okay to use a safety behavior forever? - I think it comes down to practicality and a costs/benefits analysis. If you're going to be in a scary situation quite often, you may as well invest in properly facing that fear. However, if you have to do something very rarely, you may decide it's more trouble than it's worth to handle it for real. Like if you know you'll only have to speak in public once or twice a decade, you might decide it's too much work to do something like join Toastmasters, and that you'll just take an anti-anxiety pill beforehand instead.

As mentioned, some safety behaviors are also healthy as long as you don't take them too far. You don't want to stop doing them entirely, but try to scale them back to the point where you don't feel dependent on them.

A big list of social safety behaviors

Looking over this list may help you identify some safety behaviors you didn't know you used. As you'll see, some of them are subtle. These are safety behaviors related to socializing, but some of them are things people who get anxious for other reasons might do.

Controlling your environment / avoiding situations entirely

Avoiding people while out in public:

Giving yourself an escape hatch

Bailing out of situations early

Using a ready-built excuse for any anxious or odd behavior

Trying to manage specific types of anxiety symptoms

Nausea / need to use the bathroom:

Blushing:

Sweating:

Being fidgety and full of nervous energy:

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Using substances to help control your mood

Trying not to stand out and attract attention

Being in a social setting, but mentally escaping

Being around people, but keeping them at arm's length

By using technology:

Talking with people, but holding back in various ways / blocking out facets of the interaction

Through your nonverbals:

Through what you say:

In groups:

At parties

Actively trying to avoid or diffuse awkward moments

Behaviors that can be healthy in moderation, but maladaptive if you take them too far or feel too dependent on them

Letting people know you have trouble in social situations

Monitoring yourself

Preparing ahead of time

Getting support from others

Using calming breathing techniques