image of the word unsafe

Do You Constantly Feel Unsafe?

If we experienced a traumatic childhood that frequently made us feel unsafe this feeling of not being safe may pursue us in our adult lives even though the threats we faced as children, perhaps at the hands of our parents, have passed. These feelings of being unsafe and insecure can adversely affect our social lives, work lives, and other aspects of our existence and lead us to feel constantly hypervigilant, on ‘red alert’, and always expecting some catastrophe to strike at any moment. In short, we may feel in a perpetual state of fear.

Safety-seeking behaviors:

As a result of these feelings of not being safe, we may respond by relying on ‘safety-seeking behaviors’ or ‘safety behaviors’ (Salkovskis, 1996). Often, such behaviors do not cause problems but sometimes they can be counter-productive and, over the long term, actually increase our levels of anxiety. This is because the constant avoidance (and all safety-seeking behaviors are forms of avoidance) of fear-inducing, anxiety-triggering, and challenging situations means we never learn how to deal with them head-on. Examples of safety-seeking behaviors include:

  • distraction

  • direct avoidance

  • procrastination

  • checking

  • asking others for reassurance

  • overpreparing

DISTRACTION: Distraction is used to try to avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts as may occur particularly in the case of those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The problem with this is that although it may temporarily help to suppress the disturbing thoughts, they tend to re-emerge even stronger than before. Acceptance of distressing thoughts tends to be more effective.

DIRECT AVOIDANCE: Direct avoidance (e.g. never attending social gatherings due to social anxiety, like distraction, robs us of the opportunity to learn to manage our feelings of distress in connection with the feared situation.

PROCRASTINATION: Procrastination refers to how we may constantly postpone situations, experiences, and tasks that cause us anxiety. Again, this safety-seeking behavior ultimately tends to augment, rather than decrease, our anxiety connected to whatever it is we postponed.

CHECKING: Checking involves an attempt to confirm that a particularly bad outcome we wish to avoid does not occur. Checking behaviors may be external to the individual or internal. An example of the former is when a person has to check a dozen times that s/he has locked the front door or turned off the gas. An example of the latter is when a hypochondriac checks his/her pulse and blood pressure ten times a day despite a guarantee from his/her doctor that s/he is in excellent physical health. Again, such behaviors only serve, in the long run, to intensify our anxiety.

ASKING OTHERS FOR REASSURANCE: This may include repeatedly asking a partner if s/he loves us or constantly making unnecessary visits to our doctor to confirm we’re well, despite no signs of any illness. Unfortunately, it is often the case that no amount of reassurance assuages our fears and we risk alienating those we perpetually seek reassurance from.

OVERPREPARING: We may over-prepare when we are worried we will fail or embarrass ourselves in some way. For example, we may be so worried about an upcoming short speech we are required to make that after we have written it we redraft it twenty times, working ourselves up, unnecessarily, to a fever-pitch of anxiety out of all proportion to the significance (in the grand scheme of things) upcoming event.

If our childhood trauma has led us to develop PTSD/complex PTSD as adults, then, according to Judith Hartman, developing a sense of safety is a crucial first step to recovery. For more about this, see my post: PTSD – 3 Steps To Recovery: Safety, Remembering, And Rebuilding

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