What are social anxiety safety behaviours and how do they impact our progress?
The years that I spent in therapy, I learnt a hell of a lot. A lot about myself, about social anxiety and mental health in general.
One of the things I learnt was that there are certain things we do in social situations, that we THINK are helping us but are in fact keeping us anxious long term. These are social anxiety safety behaviours.
These social anxiety safety behaviours can be as simple as playing with your phone to look busy, or as big as avoiding social situations altogether.
They make us feel safe in social situations but long term they end up maintaining our anxiety and they do absolutely nothing to reduce it.
How Do Social Anxiety Safety Behaviours Affect Our Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety safety behaviours maintain our social anxiety at a certain level because while we are engaging in these behaviours, we’re not giving ourselves a chance to disprove our anxiety.
They can also sometimes have the opposite effect of what we use them for. For example, I used to avoid eye contact and give short answers to questions being asked of me because I didn’t want people to think anything negative towards me. Except, because I was avoiding eye contact and giving short replies, I often came across as being rude and arrogant. The EXACT opposite of the impression I actually wanted to make.
Some social anxiety safety behaviours are attached to very specific situations that we simply cannot imagine going into that situation without using them.
They become a crutch in which we depend on and when suddenly we’re not able to use that crutch for whatever reason, everything feels like it’s falling apart.
That’s why it’s so important to tackle safety behaviours when learning how to manage social anxiety, because you can never really manage it fully until you acknowledge those behaviours and teach yourself how to cope without them.
Examples Of Safety Behaviours In Social Anxiety
Some of the safety behaviours I’ve had along the way and have either learnt how to live without or am still learning to live without them are:
- Sitting in a particular place on public transport depending on how far into the journey I have to stand up and exit.
- Sitting in a particular place in restaurants, so that I can face the room.
- Not sitting on tall bar stools, so that I don’t look daft trying to sit on them.
- Getting out my phone and scrolling through emails to make myself look busy when I’m sat somewhere or waiting for someone.
- Going to a checkout with at least one person already in the queue, so that the cashier doesn’t stare at me while I load my shopping onto the conveyor.
- Walking a certain route because I don’t know other routes as well, or because they’re quieter.
- Avoiding eye contact.
- Only giving short replies to questions in case I stumble on my words or they think I’m rambling.
- Covering my mouth with my hands for comfort.
- Being quiet so if I say the wrong thing, people won’t really hear me.
- Answering questions with a question mark or an inflection so that if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter because I made it clear I wasn’t sure.
- Using alcohol to help me feel more confident in social settings.
- Picking clothes that will blend me into the background instead of the clothes I really want to wear.
- Not making a decision in a group in case I make the wrong one and everyone blames me.
- Only going out at certain times when it’s quieter.
- Waiting for my phone to ring out and then looking up the number later so that I’m better prepared.
- Looking all over the room so that I don’t accidentally stare at one person.
- Only ordering the same menu item over and over again because I’ve rehearsed it to perfection.
- Not doing something unless all the circumstances are perfect.
- Cancelling plans by making excuses.
- Rehearsing every possible scenario in my head before a situation.
- Avoiding social situations altogether.
The list could go on and on!
If you think of a few things that you tend to do in social situations, that you don’t think you would cope without, the likelihood is that it’s probably a safety behaviour!
Kicking Safety Behaviours To The Curb
Facing your anxiety is so much harder when you’re too controlling of each situation and your environment. To truly kick social anxiety in the arse, learning how to be in situations without using your safety behaviours is super duper important.
I learnt how to do this in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which I talk about in my book and includes a safety behaviour worksheet.
I still practice the art of dropping my safety behaviours, even years after therapy because there are some that are still so ingrained that they need extra work and there are also new ones that pop up now and again when big changes happen in my life.
Which safety behaviours of your own spring to mind?
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