Safety behaviors can exert their negative effects through several different pathways. These pathways are not mutually exclusive, meaning a safety behavior could maintain anxiety through one, several, or all the pathways.
1. SAFETY BEHAVIORS MAINTAIN THE SENSE OF THREAT RELATED TO A FEAR/ANXIETY
The first and likely most commonly cited pathway that safety behaviors maintain anxiety by preserving or maintaining the sense of threat related to particular stimuli. In other words, they prevent an individual from learning that a particular situation, place, activity, or thing is not actually dangerous (or is less dangerous than it feels). It does this through the safety behavior attribution or near miss phenomenon. The safety behavior attribution when we attribute the lack of a feared occurrence to engaging in the safety behavior. The near miss phenomenon is when we process multiple cues of threat and possible danger though vigilance or monitoring, which is what we remember after the event or situation. Both of these keep the feeling of danger alive.
2. SAFETY BEHAVIORS PREVENT THE DEVELOPMENT OF SELF-CONFIDENCE
Safety behaviors can prevent a person from developing confidence as it relates to one’s ability to handle stressful situations and possible threats. Therefore, the person feels like they cannot handle something successfully and effectively without the safety behavior. In this way, safety behaviors can act like a crutch, and if a crutch is used, the person learns that the crutch is effective, not themselves.
An example can be seen in a research study. The researchers divided participants in two groups. The first group was supposed to stare at a stove nob and repeatedly check (mentally) that it was turned off. The second group was asked to just look once and then look away. The researchers then asked participants how confident they were in their memory that the stove was turned off. The study found that the group of participants who repeatedly checked had less confidence in their memory about whether the stove was turned on or off. This illustrates how safety behaviors prevent confidence from developing.
3. SAFETY BEHAVIORS INCREASE THE LIKELIHOOD OF THE FEARED CONSEQUENCE OCCURRING.
Another way that safety behaviors increase anxiety is they can actually increase the likelihood of a feared consequence occurring. For instance, individuals with social anxiety fear negative judgements and evaluations by others. As a result, they will be more reserved, avoid eye contact, not talk about themselves, cut conversations short, and leave situations early. Guess what type of reaction these safety behaviors elicit from others? Unfortunately, they result in being perceived as less warm, less friendly, perhaps even aloof and detached…that is, negative judgement. It is important to note, that research has shown that it is the presence of safety behaviors, and not social anxiety itself, that is the cause for these negative reactions. Thus, safety behaviors can create a type of paradoxical self-fulfilling prophecy, which reinforces individuals negative beliefs about how they are perceived by others.
4. OUR MINDS INFER THREAT AND DANGER FROM THE PRESENCE OF SAFETY BEHAVIORS
Our minds are exquisite at threat detection. Our ability to detect danger has been refined through millions of years of evolution. So, it should not be too surprising to learn that our minds automatically infer threat or danger from the mere presence of safety behaviors. As far as our mind is concerned, if a safety behavior is being used, there must be danger present. If I smell smoke, there must be fire. If wash my hands, there must be germs. If I check the locks and windows there must be danger lurking.
5. SAFETY BEHAVIORS CAN INCREASE ANXIETY IN THE MOMENT AND OVER TIME
Certain safety behaviors are well known to increase anxiety in the moment. For example, it is well known, the monitoring and vigilance related safety behaviors increase anxiety and arousal in the moment (even though they are designed to reduce it). Think of body vigilance and fear of physical symptoms such as having a heart attack. As bodily vigilance is deployed, more physical symptoms and sensations will be detected. As frightening symptoms and sensations are detected, anxiety and arousal will increase (“why is my chest hurting”). As anxiety and arousal increases, so to do physical symptoms and sensations, which in turn, feed back into bodily vigilance. Thus, a cycle of increasing vigilance and anxiety ensues.
6. SAFETY BEHAVIORS PREVENT THE PROCESSING OF FEARS/TRAUMATIC MEMORIES
In order to process of fear or trauma memory we have to spend time with it. Safety behaviors prevent us from spending time with a fear which in turn does not allow for our minds to decatastrophize the fear or process the trauma. While it is a natural things to push away things that hurt and cause fear, by doing so it does not allow our mind to “heal.”