Often persons dealing with anxiety or phobias practice behaviors such as avoidance or rituals that help them to feel safer. Unfortunately this “safety seeking behaviors” may feel better for the moment, but in the long run only serve to reinforce the idea that they cannot tolerate the feared situation or event. The message they give themselves by practicing the behaviors is that the  situation or event is dangerous or intolerable and they need to do things to make it safe. They react this way even when faced with irrational fears of situations that are in fact not very dangerous at all.

One of the more common safety seeking behaviors is avoidance. Perhaps a person afraid of driving across the bridge goes to great lengths to avoid doing so. Or a person afraid of crowds only shops very late at night or early in the morning. Or persons with panic disorder may carry water in case there mouth gets dry, refuse to travel alone, or plot travel in areas where there are readily available emergency rooms. Sometimes persons with social anxiety sit in the back of the room, avoid eye contact or situations where one is expected to converse and mingle.

Research shows that persons who become aware of and eliminate safety seeking behaviors make better gains in therapy. Often the behaviors are seemingly automatic and ingrained in the persons life, so becoming aware of them and eliminating them is half the battle. They learn to approach situations with the attitude, “lets see what happens.” or “this may be uncomfortable but I can handle it.” Teaching the person mindfulness meditative skills such as sitting with the anxiety without judgment or reaction can be invaluable in learning to let go of these behaviors.  When they face the anxiety and learn to manage it they build a kind of “immunity” to it.

With the help of a therapist this process can be gradual and systematic,  perhaps practicing with the least anxiety provoking event first and learning to tolerate that and working up to more challenging events. I would encourage one to stop and sit with anxiety when it occurs and to become more familiar with the feeling, with thoughts that accompany it and the way it feels in the body. One can breath through it, practice affirmations such as “this is just anxiety and I can handle it.” It can also be helpful to recognize the transient nature of emotions that come and go with the realization that this feeling will pass and I can look forward to feeling calmer soon.