Licensed Therapist Nathaniel D. Smith encourages people to look at where their anxiety comes from and understand why they may seek safety in their behaviors.
Why do people stay trapped in a cycle of anxiety? I have worked with many people through the years in my private counseling practice answering that question. I believe one major factor that drives chronic anxiety is people’s inability to accept uncertainty, emotions, and lack of control. People’s inability to accept these three core areas drives them to invest in “safety behaviors” to control uncertainty, outcomes, and ultimately avoid feelings they believe they cannot cope with.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
I practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The principles of this approach teach clients that unhealthy core beliefs are the source of their disturbed emotional and behavioral consequences. Many of my clients that I treat for anxiety have several beliefs about themselves and the world around them that influence the way they perceive a situation or event. Some of the common anxiety beliefs are:
- My worries take control of me,
- I make myself insane with worrying,
- Worrying helps me solve my problems,
- If I worry, I feel prepared,
- If I worry, I can prevent negative situations.
These types of beliefs create situational thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Many factors can create unhealthy anxiety core beliefs. Modern research suggests that these unhealthy anxiety beliefs are created because individuals suffer childhood or adolescent losses, trauma, overprotection, are around a worried/depressed caregiver, and a caregiver that dismissed the child or adolescent’s emotions. These development experiences create an adult that worries about others approval, feelings, loss, and ultimately losing control to the point of no recovery. These worries lead a person to safety behaviors.
People with anxiety often perform “safety behaviors” during anxiety provoking situations. These safety behaviors make the person feel more comfortable in the situation by providing temporary relief from anxiety. A common safety behavior is avoidance. The anxious person will try to avoid situations, feelings, and thoughts to control their anxiety. I have found that avoidance is a temporary management approach and leads the person to greater levels of anxiety. This temporarily helps the person to evade reality by avoiding the distasteful situation, but it reinforces the notion that the situation is very dangerous. Because of these behaviors and beliefs, the person never becomes desensitized to the feared stimulus nor reframes their beliefs.
Eradicate Safety Behaviors
I start clients off by asking them a very specific question “What situations do you avoid because of anxiety?” Another very important question is “What consequence will occur if you do not implement the safety behavior?” The perceived consequences are a large reason why people use safety behaviors to manger their anxiety. It is important to understand that safety behaviors keep individuals from overcoming their chronic anxiety because they never test their hypotheses about possible outcomes. I have outlined some common Cognitive Behavioral Therapy strategies below to help eradicate your safety behaviors for good.
1. Socratic Questioning
(Probing questions to evaluate your thoughts) Why do you believe that something negative will happen if you do not commit the safety behavior? How would you help a friend if they were making the same predictions? What is the evidence to suggest that nothing negative will happen if you do commit your safety behavior? Explain the evidence that shows nothing negative will happen if you do commit the safety behavior. What is a counter argument that would prove using your safety behaviors does not work? Describe a counter argument that proves using your safety behaviors does not work How will you cope if something negative does happen when you don’t do the safety behavior?
2. Behavioral Experiments
(Testing to see what happens) Write down all of your predictions about a situation or event. Then participate in the feared situation or event. While you are participating, start testing your predictions list by observing if any of your predictions come true. This strategy will help you test your predictions to see if they are fact or fiction.
3. Designate Worry Time
Set aside time for worrying. Don’t tell yourself ‘not to worry’ since that won’t work. Then, if you worry before your set time just write it down for later. People will use worry as a safety behavior to prepare for the worst outcomes. Assign a specific time and place for you to address your worries. (Just not before bed) During this time, sit down and write your worries on a sheet of paper. Be specific! Collect all your ‘worry pages’ for few days. Keep them all together. After a few days, look back over your list to see what actually happened.
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