Daily Archives: October 10, 2018

Safety Seeking Behaviour

(This is my 200th post!! Well done, Hui Bee!! It’s been 4 years writing here.)

There is a tribe who believe that to make the sun rise, they have to build a bonfire each night and dance around it till dawn. Because of this belief, the tribe spends most of their time collecting wood and preparing for the night (Wells, 1997). They are exhausted. This ritual has taken over their lives, but they can’t stop this as they are obliged to make sure the sun rise again for the world the next morning.

A safety seeking behaviour is something a person does to stop a feared catastrophe from happening. But safety behaviours actually make the fear stronger especially in long-term by preventing the person from discovering that the disaster is not going to happen anyway. Overcoming anxiety involves having the confidence to tolerate that anxiety whilst dropping these behaviours.

Some clinical cases

Little Alan believes that if he plays badminton, he will not sleep at night. So he has completely stopped playing badminton that he used to enjoy.

Ms Stephy has panic attacks and agoraphobia, so she shops online, and avoids shopping malls and crowded places at all cost. Now she barely gets too panic, but her life is so limited.

Mr Patrick has social anxiety. He avoids social interactions and social situations whenever possible. Even when he speaks to others, he avoids eye contacts and keeps the conversation minimal. People find him uninteresting, aloof and weird.


So, back to the tribe sunrise ceremony. How would they discover that whether or not the ritual really makes the sun rises?

How would Little Alan know whether playing badminton really lead to insomnia?

How would Ms Stephy know whether the crowds lead to her panic attacks? How can she live a more fulfilling life?

How would Mr Patrick knows whether avoiding social interaction and eye contact help with his problems?

(You might notice that they all pay huge cost in long-term in order to ease their anxiety in short term. “Short term gain, long term pain”)


It seems that this is part of us human, when we do things like “touch wood” or knocking the door before entering the hotel room. For many with OCD and anxiety disorders, it is highly important to identify their safety seeking behaviour, and do some psychoeducation around it to make them willing to drop them, or test dropping them (behavioural experiment).

More importantly, there are also times when we therapists teach them certain coping skills (e.g. abdominal breathing), and it ends up being used as safety seeking behaviour “as long as I focus on my breathing, I will not get panic attack and faint here in the mall.” So, the intention (beliefs) behind these behaviours is important. Why do you do this? Is it as a way to cope (coping strategies), so that you can continue shopping, or is it as a way to avoid a disaster you think might happen (safety seeking)?