Safety-Seeking Behaviors (Safety Behaviors)

Safety-seeking behaviours are behaviors which are carried out (either overtly or covertly) and which are intended to prevent feared catastrophes. While in the short-term they act to reduce anxiety, they have the unintended consequence of maintaining anxiety in the long term by preventing disconfirmation of an unhelpful belief. Three main types of safety behavior have been identified:

  1. Direct avoidance (overt, observable)
  2. Escape (overt, observable)
  3. Subtle avoidance (covert, often internal processes)

Although safety behaviors are labelled 'behaviors' they can also be internal processes or cognitive strategies, such as using distraction during an episode of panic, or rehearsing what you are going to say in social phobia.

Safety behaviors often seem to overlap with adaptive coping strategies. For example, distraction can be a safety behaviour, but it can also be a helpful strategy if we are in pain at the dentist. Avoidance can be a safety behaviour, but it can also be life-saving in a truly dangerous situation. The key point of differentiation is the intention of the action and whether it is, for example, designed to reduce anxiety (adaptive - anxiety is unpleasant) or to prevent a feared catastrophe (maladaptive - long-term benefit is more likely to come from challenging unhelpful belief).

Psychology Tools cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) worksheets for safety behaviors

Key references

  • Helbig‐Lang, S., & Petermann, F. (2010). Tolerate or eliminate? A systematic review on the effects of safety behavior across anxiety disorders. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 17(3), 218-233.
  • Rachman, S., Radomsky, A. S., & Shafran, R. (2008). Safety behaviour: A reconsideration. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46(2), 163-173 concordia.ca archive.org
  • Salkovskis, P. M. (1991). The importance of behaviour in the maintenance of anxiety and panic: a cognitive account. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 19, 6-19
  • Salkovskis, P. M., Clark, D. M., Hackmann, A., Wells, A., Gelder, M. G. (1999). An experimental investigation of the role of safety-seeking behaviours in the maintenance of panic disorder with agoraphobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 37, 559-574 kent.edu archive.org
  • Thwaites, R., Freeston, M. H. (2005). Safety-seeking behaviours: Fact or function? How can we clinically differentiate between safety-seeking behaviours and adaptive coping strategies across anxiety disorders? Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 33, 177-188 researchgate.net