Safety Behaviors with Social Anxiety: Helpful or Harmful?
Social anxiety can feel torturous, and to deal with it, many people use safety behaviors. Safety behaviors are specific things someone does, usually knowingly but sometimes subconsciously, to cope with anxiety. Safety behaviors can be a part of many disorders; however, they're most commonly associated with social anxiety disorder. The issue, when it comes to social anxiety and safety behaviors, is whether these behaviors are helpful or harmful.
What Are Safety Behaviors in Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety involves extreme discomfort in social situations. Discomfort with other people exists on a spectrum from shyness to avoidant personality disorder. People living with social anxiety disorder experience varying degrees of anxiety, awkwardness, and fear in social situations. Often, people with social anxiety disorder can force themselves to do what they have to do, such as go to class, work, a family gathering, or other functions. Doing so is extremely difficult, however, because of fear of embarrassment and being negatively judged.
People frequently develop safety behaviors: actions, usually small and subtle, taken to help the person feel less exposed and vulnerable as well as more in control in a very uncomfortable, even painful, situation. Examples of these protective actions include:
- Wearing clothing that hides physical symptoms, such as a turtleneck that conceals blushing
- Dressing neutrally to avoid soliciting attention
- Surreptitiously carrying comfort objects, such as a rock that can be rubbed between fingers or even a pen whose cap can be clicked
- Busying oneself with a cell phone or a book to ward off people who might want to talk
- Positioning strategically, such as by a door to allow for easy escape
- Avoiding eye contact
- Talking fast to bring an exchange to a quick end
- Having a support person along in every social situation
- Using substances such as alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs to take the edge off and enhance the ability to converse with others
If safety behaviors allow people to do something they otherwise would avoid, are they good strategies to use? The answer isn't a simple yes-or-no response. When it comes to safety behaviors for social anxiety, whether they're helpful or harmful depends on the person and the specific behavior.
Safety Behaviors for Social Anxiety: Helpful, Harmful, or Both?
As a general concept, safety behaviors are positive and helpful. These actions:
- Are coping skills that move people forward
- Allow people to take charge of an anxiety-provoking situation and have a degree of control
- Let people attend rather than avoid
Imagine a student who has been skipping school because she can't bring herself to sit in a large classroom where many people can see her. She values her education and has goals for her future; therefore, she knows she must go to class. She returns to school and sits at the back of her classes. She resumes learning, and her grades improve. Sitting in the back of the class is a safety behavior, and in this case is very helpful.
Sometimes, though, using safety behaviors can become harmful. Sometimes, they:
- Inadvertently reinforce social anxiety by sending the message that the situation was horrible and the only reason the person survived was because of the behavior
- Lead to other problems, especially when substance use is involved
- Create avoidance instead of alleviating it
Safety behaviors can get out of hand. When they become a crutch, they can be harmful. Imagine someone who doesn't think he can attend a company function. Because it's required of him, he goes but positions himself near a door, occupies himself with his phone, and if he sees someone approaching, he dashes out the door. In this case, his avoidance was extensive despite the fact that he was present at the event. He likely missed the point of being there and alienated himself and others. These safety behaviors did more harm than good.
In social anxiety, safety behaviors are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Their results depend largely on the individual and how they're used.
The key to employing safety behaviors is to use them in a way that allows you to move forward rather than keeps you stuck.
Peterson, T. (2018, July 26). Safety Behaviors with Social Anxiety: Helpful or Harmful? , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, September 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2018/7/safety-behaviors-with-social-anxiety-helpful-or-harmful
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
This is a very balanced approach to safety behaviors that makes a lot more sense than saying all of them are bad. If that were the case, emotional support animals could be considered a safety behavior, when clearly they help some people. In the case of social anxiety, the question to ask is - what did I miss out on because of my safety behavior? If the answer is nothing, it's a coping strategy.
Thank you for adding that important question: What did I miss out on because of my safety behavior? That is an excellent way of gauging the help vs. harm a certain action is.