We seem to have developed this real affinity with safety, presumably because we are so conscious of danger. Telling people to be safe as they venture into the world is pretty commonplace right? Whether we are embarking on a trip, driving home, going to a concert, or bungy jumping, people can be heard uttering some sort of sentiment that relates to safety. The question is whether this focus on safety is making our anxiety better or worse?
Anxiety has become a fairly typical state of being in this fast-paced chaotic modern world. For so many of us, we have cooked our nervous systems as we struggle to keep up with all the stimulation, demands, expectations and changes that exist on a daily basis. As a result, we can be fairly jumpy, on-edge, irritable, distracted, and forgetful a lot of the time. This makes it really hard to relax. No matter what we achieve in a day, there is always something we have forgotten and something else to do!
So, what has this got to do with safety? Well, if our nervous systems have clicked into a survival mode and we are in a heightened state of fear then chances are we are relying on safety behaviours to keep things under control. This is probably because we are looking for strategies to sustain the pace so that we don’t have to address underlying feelings and sensations that are often uncomfortable. I mean, who actually wants to feel their anxiety right?
Safety behaviours are habits and things we do to feel more comfortable in activating situations. On the surface, they can seem quite reasonable and rational solutions to “manage or cope.” It is therefore slightly confronting to learn that these things can in fact be making the anxiety worse! Examples include:
Wearing headphones in public. While this can be somewhat soothing, it also reinforces beliefs we will flip into anxiety without a distraction.
Carrying a water bottle with you. While sipping water lubricates your mouth/throat, it also reinforces beliefs that you are at risk of choking.
Checking news apps. While it is reasonable to stay informed, regularly watching the news can exacerbate beliefs that the world is a terrible place.
Reducing hours at work. While this can reduce stress, it also confirms beliefs that you cannot cope.
Having medication in your bag. While this is a backup strategy, it also reinforces the belief that you will spiral without it and could lose your mind.
Seeking reassurance when unsure. While it feels nice to connect with others, asking for reassurance can confirm beliefs that you will get it all wrong.
Wearing crystals or objects for protection. While it is comforting to have beautiful crystals, relying on them can confirm you are under attack.
Avoiding caffeine. While maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important, avoiding caffeine confirms that you cannot cope with the sensations of anxiety.
Practicing meditation. While there are lots of benefits of relaxation and meditation, practicing religiously can reinforce beliefs that you won’t be able to cope if you break the routine.
Having an exit strategy. While it is good to be prepared, fearing that you are trapped can maintain beliefs that you will get overwhelmed and lost.
Checking things repeatedly. While it is reasonable to check what you have done, repeatedly going back and reading over work or checking your bag for items can reinforce beliefs that you are not coping and will spiral into anxiety and chaos.
Wearing a mask in public. While it is appropriate to practice good hygiene, wearing PPE regularly can reinforce beliefs that you could get sick and die.
Keeping quiet in social situations. While you might be more introverted, staying quiet can reinforce ideas that will say something stupid and embarrassing.
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
It can be a bit daunting to know that the very things we are doing to keep us sane are the very things that can keep our wheels spinning! Now the message here is not to throw caution to the wind. We do, however, have to examine some of our safety behaviours and the beliefs or thoughts that might be driving them. More than that, if we want to get our power and confidence back then we actually have to start facing some of these situations that could evoke anxiety.
As part of this, I want to acknowledge that the sensations associated with anxiety suck! Who really wants to sit with a racing heart, tight chest, dry or constricted throat, tight neck, sweaty body, or tingly legs. No one is the simple answer! However, the temptation to control our environment and surroundings so that we don’t have to feel anxiety could actually be preventing us from getting our lives and bodies back. It stops us from testing whether the thing is actually going to happen, and from learning that we can cope better than what we actually thought. These safety behaviours also take up a whole lot of time as we focus on keeping things in control and ordered, rather than on the task at hand. Worse than that, there seems to be this natural law that means we almost jinx ourselves. By trying so hard to avoid anxiety, we can actually make the thing happen. By having valium in our bag, we are more likely to be scanning the body for signals that anxiety or panic are imminent which can inadvertently set us off! If we are more socially anxious, not talking at a social event can make us stand out and result in people judging us more than if we actually spoke up.
The Dreaded Alternative: Exposure
If we are going to stop trying to manage or reduce the risk of anxiety occurring, then the alternative is to confront these dam sensations head on. In the process, we can hopefully rewire our systems so that we can once again trust in our ability to cope without so many crutches. Now, this might need to be done gradually of course. Expecting our bodies to cope straight off the bat can be a bit much! Here are a few things to consider if you want to give this a go:
As soon as you notice yourself reaching for a safety behaviour, see if you can keep going without doing the thing.
Trust that your anxiety will feel worse temporarily – not because it isn’t working but because you are just getting used to the sensations you have avoided with the safety behaviours for so long. Remember that you are doing this to get your life back!
If you are getting too overwhelmed, develop a hierarchy of things that trigger your anxiety. Start with the things that are less scary right up to the most activating scenarios. Start small and build on it from there. Don’t go in too hard and overwhelm yourself completely. Pick things that are not too activating and give yourself a big old hug when it’s done.
Become your own cheerleader. Back yourself! You’ve got this. You are capable and strong. You have weathered many storms, and you will get through this too! You can absolutely do this…. I believe in you!
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