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Safety Behaviours & Why They’re Useless!

What are Safety Behaviours and Why are They Problematic?

Within the context of psychopathology, safety behaviours are any ‘strategy’ or set of behavioural activities that are believed to keep a person ‘safe’.

Safety behaviours are also known as ‘avoidance strategies’ as they will frequently involve avoiding situations that are believed to lead to fear or anxiety.

safety behaviours in emetophobia - woman avoiding food

The problem with these safety behaviours is that in almost all cases, the outcome of safety or avoidance strategies is an INCREASE in the level of Anxiety and Stress rather than a reduction, which is the main reason that people ‘deploy’ them in the first place.

In this sense, safety behaviours are paradoxical in that you get the opposite of what you planned!

Your solution to the problem IS the problem!

Yes, that’s right. In the vast majority of cases it is the conscious effort that goes into avoiding any particular problem or situation that creates the anxiety rather than the situation you are avoiding.

The more time and effort you spend avoiding the unpalatable situation, the more likely you are to experience raised level of anxiety and stress.

Safety Behaviours – An Example from Emetophobia

Emetophobia is the fear of vomiting and ’causes’ the sufferer to develop very high levels of anxiety in situations where they believe that they increase the risk of feeling nauseous.

These types of situations will frequently involve things like:

  • Avoiding alcoholic drinks – drunk people are often sick.
  • Avoiding close contact with young children – young kids tend to be more ‘germy’.
  • Avoid friends and colleagues who might have felt or been sick in the last few days.
  • Avoid pregnancy due the the probability of ‘morning sickness’
  • Avoid taking any medication that might have the side-effect of nausea.

and so on.

On first meeting with an Emetophobia sufferer most will agree that they have not actually been sick for a number of years and aside from the obvious question of why a person would become highly anxious about something that has not happened to them for many years, I will usually ask them WHY they think they haven’t been sick for such a prolonged period of time.

Emetophobes will invariably report that the reason they haven’t been sick for so long is due to the success of all of the safety behaviours that they carry out! In this way, it is clear that what they are doing is making a fairly solid logical case for continuing all of their avoidance strategies.

However, when asked if their general level of anxiety has therefore reduced over these last few years they will almost always state that their anxiety has actually INCREASED rather than reduced.

This is the paradox of safety behaviours. They might be successfully avoiding being sick, but their day-to-day level of anxiety has become worse, much worse, in fact, than just being sick for 10 seconds or so could ever produce. Surely, this is not a successful outcome!

However, if it is suggested that the best way to reduce their anxiety is to actually STOP avoiding those ‘risky’ situations, then their reaction is almost one of ‘horror’ at the idea of not carrying out their safety behaviours – after all, those avoidance strategies are keeping them free of anxiety aren’t they?

I hope you can see that the main reason these people are suffering high levels of anxiety has very little to do with actually being sick, but much more to do with all of the time and effort they put into ‘avoiding’ the situations that they believe will definitely make them sick and therefore anxious.

Stopping Safety Behaviours is the Solution

In order to reduce anxiety and stress, safety behaviours really do need to be eliminated. They are the CAUSE of the anxiety and not the solution.

safety behaviours are self imposed limitations - limitations road sign

This, of course, is the most difficult problem to confront because the sufferer truly believes that their safety behaviours are EFFECTIVE and worthwhile, but if they can, through a structured programme of awareness and education, learn to gain a greater perspective over the relative risks of their ‘exposure’ then they can start to solve the problem in a systematic and sustainable way.

Transform Your Thinking & Overcome Unhelpful Safety Behaviours

If you’re committed to overcoming your safety behaviour problems then we highly recommend following our Advanced Tranceformental CBT programme with Paul. Tranceformental CBT is available as Online Therapy if required.

The Tranceformental programme is a highly successful & pragmatic mental health counselling course, run over 10 sessions, that will teach you everything you need to know to understand your problem, identify how unhelpful thinking and limiting beliefs might be reinforcing the issue, and then show you how to make any changes to your unhelpful thinking styles or maladaptive safety behaviours that you may have developed as part of your coping strategies.

Our Tranceformental CBT programme is an evidence-based, research supported approach used by mental health practitioners around the World.

Free Initial Consultations for Safety Behaviour Problems

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We offer all prospective clients an initial consultation to discuss your mental health problems prior to commencing any counselling.

The consultation is free and lasts around 50 minutes.

During this consultation we will discuss the various types of psychological therapy that are available to you and make a considered recommendation based on your individual personal circumstances.

Initial consultations are also available as part of our online counselling service.

At Tranceform Psychology we emphasise the importance of the therapy relationship in helping people to bring about effective change, so its important to be able to ‘meet’ to discuss our change programmes BEFORE proceeding.

Our policy is to help people make a fully balanced & considered decision about undertaking mental health work with us, including both the financial and personal implications.

Buy Our Self-Help Book

The Restrictive Realities of Belief is Paul's recently authored self-help book containing everything you need to know about how mental health problems are 'realised' through the socio-cultural beliefs that we acquire over our lifetimes and what you can do to bring about effective change.

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You can read a synopsis of what this book is all about on this page:

The Restrictive Realities of Belief - Book

It is currently available as a 307 page A4 PDF file for just £19.99 which you can purchase here using PayPal. Your copy of the book will be sent by e-mail.


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For most mental health problems we recommend following our 10 session Tranceformental CBT Programme to overcome a wide range of mental health and behavioural problems.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a proven, evidence-based form of mental health counselling for developing a fundamental understanding of the dynamics of your problem, but also for learning new coping skills and strategies for sustainable change over your life.

The full course costs £795 which you can pay for on our fees page.

Tranceformental CBT is available On-line as well as a one-to-one format in the clinic.

Visit Online Counselling for more details.

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Contact Paul Lee BSc. MSc. MIAEBP

Read about Paul

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Hi, I have both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Psychology & specialise in the following therapeutic modalities:

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Psychodynamic Therapy

Call me on 07434 776125

or e-mail me on:

paul@tranceformpsychology.com

Contact Joan Lee D. Hyp. MIAEBP

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I specialise in the following therapies:

Hypnotherapy

Brain Working Recursive Therapy

Analytical Therapy

I also offer a complete programme which combines mindfulness, meditation and hypnotherapy

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Complete Wellness Programme

Call Joan on: 07434 776504

e-mail:

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Want to Find Out More?

Then Get in Touch Today.

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