Christmas is a social time of year. If you’re a socially anxious person, you might dread the idea of socialising, and cope with this anxiety by engaging in what cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) researchers call safety behaviours.
What exactly are safety behaviours? Safety behaviours are actions or strategies that people engage in to manage anxiety-provoking situations.
For example, before an event or meeting, do you often excessively rehearse what you might say or how you might behave? Do you often rehearse sentences in your mind? Do you spend time thinking of good excuses for escaping?
Perhaps you wear cool clothes to avoid sweating, or wear clothes that will conceal sweating if it occurs, or maybe you say “it’s hot" to explain sweating or blushing?
Do you spend stressful hours on grooming prior to the situation? Do you make excuses about your appearance? Do you check the redness of your face in a mirror?
Do you hold your cup or glass tightly, in an effort to prevent your hand from shaking?
Do you try to think of reasons why the other person is inferior to you? Do you ask others about your performance? Maybe you are prone to saying that you are sick or unwell?
Do you look closely at others and try to gauge their reactions to you? Or perhaps you try to avoid eye contact, and keep still to avoid drawing attention to yourself? Maybe you position yourself so as not to be noticed?
These are just some of the questions in the Subtle Avoidance Frequency Examination (Safe), a scales sometimes used by CBT therapists to assess how a person manages their social anxiety.
Now, regular readers will know that I often caution against avoidant behaviours, for the simple reason that while avoidance feels good in the short-term, it reinforces and worsens anxiety over time.
In contrast to avoidance, safety behaviours might seem harmless, but they’re not. Safety behaviours are a bad idea that will ultimately make your social anxiety worse, not better.
Why? Think of it this way. Imagine you’re afraid of flying. You know you can’t keep avoiding flying, but you are terrified at the thought of it. So, you take a few Xanax tablets before the flight and drink a bottle of wine to knock yourself out.
Will you still be afraid of flying after the flight? Almost certainly, yes. Overcoming anxiety means retraining your brain by confronting feared situations so that the feared situation is no longer seen as a threat. That hasn’t happened here. The message you have given your brain is: thank God’s that’s over, I’d never have managed without the Xanax and the alcohol.
Social anxiety tends to be underpinned by a negative core belief: I’m not good enough. Or, to borrow from the title of one psychological study, ‘”I’m unlikeable, boring, weird, foolish, inferior, inadequate”: how to address the persistent negative self-evaluations that are central to social anxiety disorder with cognitive therapy’.
As the title of the study implies, the aforementioned safety behaviours are driven by shame and fear of negative judgements. They make it more difficult for people to have genuinely positive interactions and to form meaningful relationships.
For example, if you excessively prepare for a social event, then your belief that you are unlikeable is unlikely to change even if the conversation is going well. Why? You will think you only prevented people from thinking critical thoughts about you because you rehearsed various topics in advance.
Like avoidance, social safety behaviours – or ‘impression management strategies’, as the aforementioned study describes them – ‘are ways of hiding the self from the world’. Thus, they maintain negative self-beliefs.
I think almost everyone employs certain safety behaviours on occasion, particularly in uncomfortable social situations. However, if you suffer from social anxiety, you should aim to recognise and cut out as many safety behaviours as possible.
This Christmas (and beyond) may provide opportunities to embark on a journey of gradual exposure. That prospect may seem intimidating right now, but liberating yourself from the confines of these habits will, in the long run, boost self-confidence and improve social interactions, paving the way for a more enriching and authentic life.
(First published in Southern Star on 21/12/2023).