In the context of health anxiety "safety behaviors" are what we do to try and prevent or reduce the anxiety we are experiencing from a given symptom, bodily sensation, or bodily function. The three main types of safety behaviors related to health anxiety are reassurance-seeking, checking, and preventive.
Why Don't Safety Behaviors Work?
All of these behaviors might reduce anxiety in the short term but they most definitely increase it over the long term. Why? Because we learn to rely on them to achieve a sense of safety and rob ourselves of the opportunity to see that we never needed them to begin with because we weren’t actually in danger. For example, we might think, "Thank God I checked my pulse and stopped working out to slow down my heart rate. I would have had a heart attack." But we never learn that we would not have had a heart attack, whether we checked our pulse a dozen times or none at all.
Also, the more we use safety behaviors, the more meaning and significance we give to them and, thus, the more dependent we become on them.
Reassurance-Seeking Safety Behaviors
First, let’s talk about reassurance-seeking behaviors. To deal with the stress of a new symptom or sensation, you collect information to assess what kind of danger you might be in. You might ask a friend or a family member what they think. Do you think this twitch is something neurological? Do I look flushed to you? Or you might spend a pretty penny going to primary care offices, urgent cares, hospitals, or other medical facilities to consult with doctors and other medical professionals. Or you might just head on down the old google rabbit hole.
Excessive Checking Safety Behaviors
Next up is the safety behavior of excessive checking. You often monitor for symptoms, physical sensations, or any kind of bodily function that might be “concerning.” You are like a little detective, always working hard to solve each case or new symptom. You might repeatedly push, pull, poke or pinch a part of your body or a new symptom. You might compare two sides of your body to identify any differences. You may inspect your feces or urine, check your heart rate, blood pressure, weight, or lung capacity. Or perhaps you give yourself examinations of some kind, such as visual tests, neurological or cognitive tests, or physical exertion tests. Sometimes you are so on top of it that you even make sure you are aware of all the potential future symptoms that may emerge.
Some checking behaviors are subtle and sometimes not even easy to identify (e.g. paying attention to breathing patterns) and others are so overt and time-consuming that they can seriously disrupt your daily life.
Preventive Safety Behaviors
And last but not least is preventive safety behaviors. You seek to prevent the possibility of future health problems. You might read incessantly about health recommendations or attend health classes or seminars. Or maybe you take a variety of supplements, work out religiously, and/or go to great lengths to avoid a wide range of foods or drinks, such as eating strictly non-GMO, organic, non-processed foods. To prevent consequences from any future health emergencies, you might ensure you have personal medical information, your phone, medical equipment, or medication readily accessible at all times. Or you might prefer to have a safe person with you whenever possible or consistently keep loved ones updated on your whereabouts just in case you have a medical emergency. When planning a long drive or trip to somewhere new, you might do research to ensure that the destination is located near an urgent care or hospital.