What Are Safety Behaviors that Maintain Social Anxiety?

Looking down can be a safety behavior.
Take care not to engage in safety behaviors like avoiding eye contact. Michael Prince / Getty Images

People who suffer with social anxiety disorder (SAD) often engage in "safety behaviors." These are those things that you do to try and avoid embarrassment in front of others. Although it may seem like doing these things helps to reduce your anxiety, in the long run what you are doing is actually maintaining your fear. If you think that you can only survive giving a speech if you never look up at the audience, then you will always be afraid of public speaking.

For people with SAD, safety behaviors serve the purpose of controlling or limiting your experience of situations and managing feelings of anxiety. If you aren't sure whether you engage in any of these types of behaviors, think about how you behave when you are in social or performance situations. Do you do things differently than when you are on your own?

Perhaps when speaking to others you talk very softly or cover your hand with your mouth. You might rehearse what you are about to say for fear of it coming out the wrong way. You might also avoid eye contact and keep your hands out of sight so that others can't see you shake. All of these behaviors are designed to try and mask your anxiety.

Do you ever find yourself not following the conversations around you? If so, you might be detaching yourself from the conversation as a way of staying safe. Daydreaming is a way of staying "inside your head" and not really being involved in what is going on around you.

Although you might feel less anxious, if you stop daydreaming and start engaging, the anxiety will return. This behavior is just a band-aid solution to a larger underlying problem.

Safety behaviors can also be harmful in their own right. Some people with social anxiety disorder might use alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with social situations.

Over time, casual use of alcohol can turn into full-blown alcoholism. These types of safety behaviors not only maintain and prolong anxiety but can lead to serious negative effects.

Safety behaviors can be even more subtle than the ones listed above. Perhaps you have developed an easy signature so that people will not see your hand shake when you sign in front of them. You might avoid trying new things for fear of embarrassment if you make mistakes or can't figure things out in front of other people. Some people with SAD are even careful about when they leave their homes so that they don't run into neighbors and have to make conversation.

The problem with safety behaviors is that they maintain anxiety. You believe that the only reason you survive situations is because of the measures that you take to control your anxiety. The key to gaining real control is to expose yourself to situations without using your safety behaviors and observe the result. Over time, you will realize that you can get by without behaving in these specific ways.

This type of exposure is best conducted as part of a professional treatment program with a therapist.

Sources:

Antony, MM, Stein, MB. Oxford handbook of anxiety and related disorders. New York: Oxford University Press; 2008.

Hoffman, SG, Otto, MW. Cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2008.

Markway, BG, Markway, GP. Painfully Shy. New York: St. Martin's Press; 2003.

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