How to Stop Your Anxious Safety Behaviours

Safety behaviours are coping mechanisms you use in an attempt to reduce your anxiety when you feel threatened.

I call them anxious behaviours because these behaviours actually do you more harm than good (safety is a bit of a misnomer).

Anxious behaviours may (sometimes, but not always) provide some immediate reduction in anxiety, but relief is short-lived because anxious behaviours cognitively reinforce your automatic negative thoughts and anxious beliefs. 

In other words, in time, anxious behaviours raise, not reduce, your anxiety level.

Isn't it time you finally say goodbye to anxious behaviours - so you can neutralizing a major cause of health anxiety, and get one step closer to lasting recovery? Read on.

The vicious cycle of health anxiety

Anxious behaviours often ignite a vicious cycle:

  1. Initial discomfort or challenging situation.

  2. Worry that you may have an undiagnosed, serious illness.

  3. Your anxious behaviours reinforce your fears.

  4. Rising anxiety results in physical symptoms of anxiety.

  5. You become even more convinced that you have an undiagnosed, serious illness.

  6. More anxious behaviours reinforce your fears.

  7. This creates more anxiety and more physical symptoms.

  8. Tests and medical opinions indicate that nothing is physically wrong, providing no relief and causing you to believe they missed something.

  9. Repeat.

How do I stop my anxious, safety behaviours?

If you simply "try to stop" an anxious behaviour, odds are you're going to fail. #sorrynotsorry

Want to improve your odds? Accompany the change in behaviour with a positive emotional response (in other words, a reward).

To provide the positive emotional response, you must substitute your anxious behaviour with a positive one that reinforces the positive, rational thought you're forming.

Here's the exact, step-by-step process I followed to stop anxious behaviours during my 60-day health anxiety recovery.

Step 1: Identify your anxious behaviours.

There are two kinds of anxious, or safety behaviours: Preventive behaviours (which attempt to reduce anxiety associated with situations that have yet to occur) and restorative behaviours (which attempt to reduce anxiety associated with a situation that’s presently occurring).

Preventive behaviours

  • Avoidance: Avoiding people, places or situations that you (consciously or subconsciously) associate with symptoms, suspected illnesses or mortality. For example:

    • Avoiding exercise if you fear you have a heart condition.

    • Avoiding any location that’s not within 10km of a hospital.

    • Avoiding noisy environments if you fear your headache is a sign you have a brain tumour.

  • Preparation: For the possibility of encountering such situations. For example:

    • Carry Aspirin in case you have a heart attack.

    • Draft a will, in case you pass away.

  • Worrying: Giving anxious thoughts undue attention over more important demands for your attention - including but not limited to career, education, family, friends and self-care.

  • Dependency: Relying on someone or something. For example, inviting a friend or family member to stay with you in case you have an emergency in your sleep.

  • Checking: Self-examining to check for new symptoms that may require medical attention. For example:

    • Checking your skin for lumps or lesions.

    • Checking your body for painful or tender areas.

    • Checking your pulse.

    • Checking your weight.

    • Taking your body temperature.

Restorative behaviours

Cyberchondria:  Searching the Internet (including search engines like Google) for symptoms, illnesses, or remedies, and engaging in online discussion groups or forums, for the purposes of self-diagnosis.

Cyberchondria: Searching the Internet (including search engines like Google) for symptoms, illnesses, or remedies, and engaging in online discussion groups or forums, for the purposes of self-diagnosis.

  • Checking: Mentioned above, checking can also be considered a restorative behaviour, when checking existing symptoms to see whether they’ve self-resolved or gone away.

  • Researching: Seeking information for the purposes of self-diagnosis or reassurance.

    • Cyberchondria (Googling symptoms, illnesses or remedies for the purposes of self-diagnosis).

    • Engaging in online discussion groups or forums to where symptoms, diagnoses, illnesses, remedies are discussed.

  • Distraction: Making yourself “busy” to avoid the threatening situation or negative thought.

  • Seeking reassurance: Frequent and unnecessary doctor or emergency room visits, and frequently discussing health concerns with family and friends.

  • Suppressing thoughts: Ignoring, and “trying not to think about” your symptom, illness, or negative thoughts.

  • Suppressing sensations: Taking deep breaths or ceasing physical activity in an attempt to make the symptom/sensation go away. These are similar to escaping, below.

  • Escapism: Attempting to remove yourself from the situation, even when it’s not in your best interests. For example: Going home from work or leaving a social engagement early; seeking or taking medications, dietary supplements or foods to remedy your symptoms; abusing drugs or alcohol.

  • Neutralizing: Attempting to neutralize the threat by praying, wishing or hoping it’s harmless, will self-resolve or cease to exist.

Do the following two things right now (it’ll take you less than 5 minutes): 

1. Identify your anxious behaviours. You’ll recognize some of them in the list above, but the list isn’t exhaustive, so you may engage in other behaviours that aren’t listed. Write them down, and sort them into preventive and restorative.

2. Think back to the last time you engaged in each behaviour. Where were you? What were you doing? This will help you recognize them *before* you engage in them next time.

Got your list? Awesome. Move onto step 2. 

Step 2: Explore the underlying thoughts and emotions that lead to your anxious behaviours.

Next time you feel the pull of an anxious behaviour:

  1. Pause.

  2. Turn your attention to your breathing - not to suppress or run away from the thought or behaviour, but to focus your attention on them.

  3. With genuine curiosity, consider what negative, irrational thought and corresponding emotion drew you toward the anxious behaviour.

Use a journal to record your thoughts, behaviours and review your progress.

Use a journal to record your thoughts, behaviours and review your progress.

Step 3: Challenge the negative thought.

Perform the Trap → Confront → Transform → Complete process I explain step-by-step in another post.

In doing so, you'll:

  1. Disprove the negative thought, and neutralize its corresponding emotion

  2. Replacing it with a positive, rational thought

  3. Reinforce the positive, rational thought with a reward (the dopamine hit you get when you complete a worthwhile next action that contributes to a healthier, happier, more productive, more mindful you).

Step 4: Evaluate your progress.

Once you’ve completed your next action, take time to reflect.

Get out your journal, sit somewhere you won't be disturbed, and ask yourself:

"Self, how do you feel?"

"Was the threat as real as I imagined?"

"Was the experience better than, the same, or worse than similar situations in the past, when I'd engage in anxious behaviours?"

"Could I do it again? If so, what would I do different to make next time even easier?"

Don't be too hard on yourself here - it takes practice. Fall in love with progress and in time you'll master this new skill.


Now, apply.

📗 If you don't have a journal, get one. Documenting what you learn, and your progress, is critical to your recovery. The best journal is one you have with you, so I recommend Day One (Download for iPhone or iPad | Android) because it's easy to use and I can take it with me everywhere I go. If you prefer pen and paper, that's fine - any journal will do.

🗒  Make a list of your anxious behaviours and under what circumstances they'd typically occur.

✏️ Each time you feel the pull of an anxious behaviour, explore the underlying negative thoughts and emotions, challenge them, perform your next action, and evaluate your progress.

🎯 Practice, practice, practice. In time, the pull and frequency of anxious behaviours will lessen, and eventually, disappear.

🙏🏼 Share this post - it may help a loved one or friend finally begin a healthy, fearless life, free of anxiety.