Could the actions you take to get rid of your fears be backfiring? Afraid so. “Safety behaviors,” the common behaviors anxious people believe to be helpful in getting rid of anxiety play a role in maintaining it, instead. They can even make it worse.
Let me give you an example. I’ve written elsewhere about Drew, a (now) recovering hodophobe whose travel fears revolved around the possibility that she would make a fool of herself, attract the negative attention of others, and/or have a panic attack on the plane. She’d had panic attacks before, and when they’d occurred, she’d “figured out” how to deal with them. She’d developed a safety behavior of calling her cousin Sara, who could always talk her down.
How long did it take to talk Drew down? About twenty minutes, the length of time a panic attack could be expected to last whether there was anyone around to soothe and reassure her or not. The talks with Sara weren’t really helping Drew get rid of her panic. She just thought they were. And they became the thing she had to do whenever she felt the signs of panic.
Take My Fear of Flying…Please
When I started flying again after years of being grounded by fear, I relied on several safety behaviors to keep my anxiety in check, and all of them worked against me. I asked for a prescription for benzodiazepines, for one thing, even though I’d worked with people with addictions for years and should have known better.
These drugs seemed like magic pills to me before I swallowed the first one. They would mysteriously perform a fear-ectomy, I thought, and turn me into a confident traveler. I mixed them with wine because I knew that alcohol increased their tranquilizing effects. People are warned against doing this, for obvious reasons, but a heightened effect was just what I wanted from combining the two sedatives. So there.
That didn’t work. The pills made my anxiety worse, thank goodness, so there was no chance that taking them would become a long-term safety behavior for me. Even more importantly, I bypassed the pains of addiction that are the outcome for almost half the people who take benzodiazepines regularly. My poor response to the pills helped me dodge that bullet.
Hypervigilance as a Safety Behavior
So, if I couldn’t fly comfortably by doping myself into a stupor, how could I manage my fear? I could carefully monitor all the noises the plane made. That way, I would be the first one to pick up on a problem if anything went wrong.
It’s easy to see how hypervigilance can become a safety behavior. The anxious imagination is always dreaming up worst-case scenarios. Then we have to work to determine if the disasters we’ve imagined are likely to occur or not.
Getting the facts about the things we fear (like knowing planes are safe) can help us manage our anxiety. And it seems that knowing there’s nothing wrong with our particular plane could do the same thing. But to know that, we’ve got to pay very careful attention to all the bumps and thumps and hiccups it makes. That, and not putting my full weight down on the seat could do the trick.
Hypervigilance as a Feature of Anxiety Disorders
People who have panic disorders are almost always hypervigilant to their own bodies. In the same way that I scanned the plane for problems, a person with a panic disorder might tune into their heart rate. Is it normal? Is it going up? Am I about to panic?
People who have social anxiety are hypervigilant to the judgment of others. Is he looking at me? Does she see how nervous I am? Am I blushing? Can they tell?
And people with phobias (like hodophobia) are hypervigilant to the appearance of the object or situation they fear. Is the plane about to crash? Is that a spider?
We scan for the thing we fear the most. We’re hypervigilant to its emergence. If it’s not on the horizon, we tell ourselves, we’ll be able to relax.
But we can’t relax. We have to keep scanning. Since we’re constantly engaged with our fear in this way, it wears us out. It stresses us. And the more stressed we are, the more anxious we become.
Reassurance as a Safety Behavior
And what did I do when I was “rewarded” for my hypervigilance? What did I do when I heard a funny noise or felt a bump that didn’t seem just right? I looked at the flight attendants to see if they looked scared. I asked my husband if everything was all right.
This usually involved waking him up, since he starts snoring the minute we pull away from the gate. Lacking fear himself, but sympathetic to mine, he’d always rouse himself enough to tune into the engine’s noise and try to hear whatever it was that had caught my attention.
“What does it sound like?” he’d ask. And I’d try to explain that it was a lessening of the engines’ roar that made me wonder if one of them had stopped working. Or it was a thump, like maybe the luggage had suddenly shifted and was about to throw the plane off balance. Or it was a snap that sounded like the early stage of a bomb being ignited. Or whatever.
He’d listen for a minute and then say something like, “I’m not sure I’m hearing what you’re hearing, but I don’t hear anything that gives me cause for alarm.” Then he’d go back to sleep.
If Safety Behaviors are Comforting, Why Does It Matter Whether They Really “Work”?
In Drew’s case, calling Sara reinforced her belief that she needed someone else’s help to get through the rough spots in life. Of course, we all need other people at times. That’s normal. But once you develop a belief that other people are more capable than you are, you’ll rely on them instead of on yourself to manage your emotions. You’ll grow less confident about your own abilities to moderate your fear. And lower confidence equates to higher anxiety.
Safety Behaviors Interrupt the Benefits of Exposure
Exposure to a feared situation is one of the most effective means of overcoming anxiety. I’m not suggesting you just book a trip and head across the world as a way to expose yourself to your travel fears. If you have normal travel anxiety, that might help. If you have a full-blown phobia, it might have the opposite effect. (If you’re not sure about the difference between normal travel anxiety and hodophobia, you can read more about the topic here.) While it’s true that some people learn to swim when they’re tossed into the deep end of the pool, others…well…sink.
Exposure therapy is a step-by-step process, not to be undertaken lightly. That doesn’t mean you can’t develop your own exposure plan for fear-free travel. In fact, I show you in my book how to use exposure therapy for fighting your travel fears, and there’s an abbreviated version elsewhere on the blog. But even a systematic plan for overcoming your fears can be derailed when safety behaviors slip into the mix.
How My Safety Behaviors Kept Me Trapped in Fear of Flying
Nothing cures aerophobia like flying does. Nothing cures xenophobia like getting to know people from other nations. Nothing cures hodophobia like travel. That is the beauty of exposure therapy.
Every time we try to push fear away, it gets bigger. Every time we face it, it diminishes.
When I was tuned into the plane’s noises, I thought my hypervigilance was keeping me safe. When my husband told me everything was all right, I thought everything was all right. If it wasn’t, he would know. Right?
But asking kept me from experiencing the benefits of exposure. It kept me trapped in a cycle of running from my fear instead of just feeling it and realizing it wasn’t going to hurt me. And yes, I realized from a rational standpoint that fear wasn’t going to hurt me, but this is something your body has to experience too.
Giving up My Safety Behaviors; Overcoming My Fear
Fear can’t hurt you. How often have I said those words to my clients? Thousands of times. Yet it’s still easy to forget this truth when I get caught up in running from fear instead of facing it.
When I quit asking Larry if every noise I heard meant we were about to crash, the noises got a little scarier at first. So what? Fear is only fear. It can’t hurt you.
But then I got to experience the true value of exposure. I was flying. The plane was making a “funny” noise. And I was fine. I exposed myself to my feared situation and I exposed myself to fear. That’s when I started to make some real headway with my phobia.
My flying phobia (an unreasonable, intense fear) is gone, but I still get nervous sometimes when I fly. Since I’m a relaxation ninja and an expert in CBT and other fear-fighting techniques, I can usually dispel my anxiety, but I don’t work at this too hard. I hope you won’t either.
We don’t need to, because fear can’t hurt you as long as you don’t mind feeling it. It’s only when you try to keep it at bay, through the use of safety behaviors and avoidance, that it can destroy your life.