Safety Behaviours & Avoidance

Safety behaviours are any ‘strategy’ or set of behavioural activities that are ‘deployed’ to keep a person ‘safe’.

They are also known as ‘avoidance strategies’ as they frequently involve avoiding situations (threats) that are believed to lead to fear or anxiety.

The problem with safety behaviours is that in almost all cases, the outcome is an INCREASE in the level of anxiety and stress rather than a reduction, which is the main reason that people ‘deploy’ them in the first place.

In this sense, safety behaviours are paradoxical in that you get the opposite of what you planned for!

In psychological ‘speak’ we say that:

The solution to the problem IS the problem!

Yes, that’s right. In the vast majority of cases it is the conscious effort that goes into avoiding any particular problem or situation that creates the anxiety rather than the situation you are avoiding.

The more time and effort you spend avoiding the unpalatable situation, the more likely you are to experience raised level of anxiety and stress.

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Safety Behaviours – An Example from Emetophobia

Emetophobia is the fear of vomiting or being sick and ’causes’ the sufferer to develop very high levels of anxiety in situations where they believe that  the risk of feeling nauseous will increase.

These types of situations will frequently involve things like:

  • Avoiding pubs because drunk people are often sick.
  • Avoiding drinking alcohol for fear of being sick oneself.
  • Avoiding close contact with young children because they tend to catch more illnesses and carry more germs.
  • Avoiding friends and colleagues who might have felt or been sick in the last few days.
  • Avoid pregnancy due the the probability of ‘morning sickness’.
  • Avoid taking any medication that might produce nausea as a side-effect.
  • and so on.

The majority of Emetophobia sufferers, however, report that they haven’t actually been sick for ‘some years’ and on asking them why they believe that is the case, normally respond by arguing that it is due to the success of all of their safety behaviours.

In this way, they construct a ‘logical’ argument for the continuation of their safety behaviours:

Performing My Safety Behaviours


Not Being Sick

Paradoxically, however, their safety behaviours might have prevented them from being sick, but their level of anxiety has increased significantly.

This is the central problem with safety behaviours.

They might have successfully avoided being sick, but their day-to-day level of anxiety has become worse, much worse, in fact, than just being sick for 10 seconds or so could ever produce.

Surely, this is not a successful overall outcome!

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Stopping Safety Behaviours is the Solution

In order to reduce anxiety and stress, safety behaviours really do need to be eliminated because they are the CAUSE of the anxiety and not the solution to it.

However, if it is suggested to them that they actually STOP avoiding those ‘risky’ situations, then their reaction is almost one of ‘horror’ at the idea of not carrying out their safety behaviours – after all, those avoidance strategies are keeping them free of anxiety aren’t they?

This illustrates that the main reason Emetophobia sufferers experience high levels of anxiety has very little to do with actually being sick and much more to do with all of the time and effort they put into avoiding potentially ‘risky’ (nausea invoking) situations, ie. performing their array of safety behaviours.

Convincing Emetophobia sufferers that it is their safety behaviours that is causing anxiety and NOT being sick is, of course, a significant challenge.

The same can said to be true of almost all safety behaviours that are deployed to ‘fend off’ anxiety or other psychological threats.

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Want to Find Out More?

If you’d like to find out more about eliminating unhelpful safety behaviours using a psychosocial approach, then why not arrange a free initial consultation with us.

During this consultation we will discuss your particular problem, what it means to you and the potential solutions that are available.

We provide a safe, confidential and non-judgemental environment without any obligation for you to commit to any psychotherapy programmes or sessions going forward.

This initial consultation will give you the opportunity to consider the merits of the psychosocial perspective as well as the chance to find out what Paul or Joan are like as individuals.

Contact Paul

You can contact Paul on:

07434 776125

or by e-mail at:

Contact Joan

You can contact Joan on:

07434 776504

or by e-mail at:


Hypnotherapist Joan Lee D. Hyp. MIAEBP

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Lee Psychology, Maypole House, Yew Tree Court, Wombourne, South Staffordshire, WV5 9JB.

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