Today we’re going to talk about anxiety safety behaviors, how they make you feel better in the moment, why they really don’t help us in the long run. And finally what to do instead of relying on them to keep anxiety at bay…
A safety behavior is something you do to help yourself when you feel your anxiety is getting out of control. Or something you do to prevent your anxiety from getting out of hand.
Anxiety happens because you have a release of stress hormones and you become afraid of the symptoms you feel. You employ a safety behavior and the anxiety dies down.
What you never understood is that the anxiety always naturally dies down on its own. Your body only has so much adrenaline and stress hormones. So even if you never reached for the gum, the drink, or the pill, your anxiety would have naturally dissipated on its own.
My safety behaviors with anxiety started back when I was in college…
When college first started I was so excited to sit in those huge amphitheater like lecture halls and show how smart I was by asking intelligent questions and feeling very grown up!
At first I loved sitting down in front and center and being engaged and excited about the subject matter. It was a few weeks into my first semester however that I noticed I was having anxiety during class. I remember sitting there and feeling hot and trapped in my chair- and the classes were long- an hour and half to two hours. Sitting there in Biology 101, I noticed my stomach getting slightly queasy.
The first few times the queasiness happened I remember bolting from my chair and running to the bathroom as quickly as I could- thinking I was going to puke. Once I got to the bathroom the nausea and all the symptoms immediately went away. I remember feeling so bewildered, wondering why I was 100% better just by leaving the class
At the time I didn’t know or understand that this was just my overly stressed body releasing adrenaline and other stress hormones making my tummy all quaky and nervous. I didn’t know or understand that I wouldn’t actually ever vomit or otherwise embarrass myself in class.
Because I knew I couldn’t very well stay in the bathroom, I had to be in class, I did what I thought would help: I chewed mint gum, or antacids to help sooth my stomach. And I kept a bottle of selter water with me at all times. And I moved my seat to the very back of the room, in the corner- to the seat nearest the exit. These were my anxiety safety behaviors.
And that is essentially how I did college- feeling very agitated sitting in the class, sitting in my exit seat, and chewing gum, Tums, and drinking seltzer water, all to prevent anxiety, vomiting, freaking out, and whatever other bad things my mind would dream up.
How Safety Behaviors Keep Your Anxiety Alive
There is nothing inherently wrong with chewing mint gum or drinking seltzer water for a queasy stomach. The problem is in thinking that the gum or the seltzer or the Xanax, or sitting in a certain seat in the lecture hall (the safety behavior) was the reason why the queasiness didn’t escalate to out of control, and then becoming dependent on the safety behavior for the anxiety to die down.
When the truth of the matter is the anxiety will always die down on its own naturally. The body always wants to go back to a state of equilibrium.
For all my years in college, I never went to class without that trusty combination of antacids or mint gum and seltzer water in my book bag to have on hand JUST IN CASE. And I always sat in the back near the exit, again JUST IN CASE…And pretty soon I was taking tranquilizers too, just in case…
And every day, just as sure as the sun would rise, the anxiety came back once I was sitting in the next lecture hall and having a queasy stomach.
Why Does Anxiety Always Come Back When Using Safety Behaviors?
It’s because you don’t understand that the disturbing anxiety symptom is merely due to the body’s release of stress hormones.
I certainly didn’t understand that the queasy stomach was due to adrenaline and stress hormones.
Instead- and here is the error and key- I wrongly became very frightened of having the queasiness (the anxiety symptom)- and in my fear, I took the Tums and chewed the gum and gulped the seltzer and took the tranquilizer to ease my symptom.
And once the queasiness died down AS IT WOULD HAVE ANYWAYS I wrongly assumed it was only because I had taken pills and chewed gum and Tums, etc.
What to Do INSTEAD of Using False Safety Behaviors
You can relax to the best of your ability. You can just sit there with your anxiety symptoms, and BY NOT GETTING FREAKED OUT ABOUT THEM, your symptoms will die down on their own.
The surge of adrenaline that happens when you get agitated is just that- a surge of adrenaline. It creates alarming symptoms, such as queasiness, or palpitations, or dizziness, or what have you… But there is nothing physically wrong. And there is nothing mentally wrong. The only thing *wrong* is being afraid of the symptom.
If only I could have just let myself sit with it and done nothing, the anxiety would have died down on its own. If only I knew to just try to sit there and relax to the best of my ability like I did here at the Broadway play recently, the adrenaline would have dissipated and my body would have gone back to its natural state without me thinking the key was taking gum and antacids and sitting in a certain seat, and even with all those safety behaviors never really feeling truly safe…
The Takeaway– What to do To When You First Notice an Anxiety Symptom
To really and truly get a handle on anxiety, first:
Notice the unpleasant symptom.
Your stomach is queasy. (or your heart is racing, or you feel dizzy, etc.)
Observe your thoughts about the symptom:
Oh my God there it is again. Today is the day I will vomit in class. I can’t stand being this way. This SUCKS SO BAD. Why is this happening to me??
Instead of getting caught up in your thoughts, simply observe your thoughts – they are like clouds- yes, they can be alarming thoughts, but a thought can’t hurt you. 🙂
Don’t reach for the safety behavior.
Because it doesn’t help.
Instead – Just wait. Sit and be uncomfortable. Watch those disturbing thoughts. Breathe. Focus on your breathing. Know that adrenaline cant really do anything to you. All it can do is make you feel that symptom. Wait. Accept that you feel like crap for a little bit. Just breathe…
Notice that the fear dies down, because your supply of adrenaline is all used up. Pretty soon the nausea and queasiness are gone. And you are fine. Truly 🙂
I did this article on anxiety safety behaviors because I have clung to mine so desperately over the years. For me, the Tums and mint gum and seltzer water were replaced in my 20s, with anti-anxiety medications including Clonazepam and Xanax. (Misery, hello meet Jill, she will be with you for decades..)
Using safety behaviors isn’t a sin, but it gives a false sense of security, and ultimately does nothing to help you see that anxiety is nothing but a harmless phantom. It can scare the crap out of you, but it can’t ever REALLY hurt you physically or mentally. And safety behaviors only serve to keep the anxiety alive.
I wish you peace,
PS. Do you wish you could stop using safety behaviors and feel better naturally, but don’t yet have the courage to just sit there and let the anxiety do its worst? That is completely understandable, and please know that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can really help you get there. It is THE number one way used worldwide to treat anxiety and panic. CBT4PANIC is a complete online CBT treatment plan for anxiety & panic disorder created by professional CBT therapists. You can even try it for free. Because you deserve to feel better 🙂