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Coping Behaviours vs. Safety Behaviours – What are they and what is the difference?

The term “Safety Behaviours” may have a misleading name that implies that these strategies provide more benefits than harm. However, when we really break down what a safety behaviour is and how it affects us, we can begin to understand the potentially harmful effects. So, what are “Safety Behaviours” and how do they differ from coping behaviours?

Safety behaviours consist of conscious or subconscious behaviours or actions that are used by individuals in an attempt to minimize or prevent feelings of fear and anxiety while providing a sense of safety to the individual. What becomes potentially harmful is when these behaviours prevent individuals from confronting or feeling the fear. When engaging in safety behaviours, it provides a short-term effect wherein anxiety and fears are avoided, making the individual feel safer in this moment. However, in the long-term, these behaviours maintain anxiety and fear by not allowing individuals to disprove their chosen safety behaviours.

Coping behaviours entail the use of behavioural strategies geared towards managing distress as well as assisting with daily issues that can cause feelings of distress. While there are similarities in the description of these two concepts, they do have their differences. For instance, coping behaviours are often used in response to a situation that would be recognized as stressful or distressing to an objective observer. An example of this would be preparing for an interview, exams, driving test, or public speaking event; majority of individuals feel some type of stress or anxiety in these moments.

At this point, you may still be wondering, what are the differences between the two? When differentiating these two behaviours, it is important to consider the intention or the why behind them. Safety behaviours are not what you do, but rather why you are using them that differentiates them from coping behaviours. Safety behaviours can become problematic as they can be mistakenly ‘thanked’ if our fears don’t come true. Furthermore, the safety behaviours cause individuals to increase their self-focused attention on the feelings of anxiety and fear rather than the task at hand.

It is important to note that neither of these behaviours are long-term solutions in themselves. Coping behaviours allow individuals to continue to challenge their fears and function on a daily basis, whereas safety behaviours are avoidant behaviours in which individuals do not attempt to disprove their theory of a perceived threat. Coping behaviours can assist individuals in delving deeper into the root of the fears and anxiety while being able to manage the fears and anxieties effectively, and healthily.

If you’re unsure whether you are using safety behaviours or coping behaviours, please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced counsellors for further assistance.

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References

Baker, H., Alden, L. E., & Robichaud, M. (2021). A comparison of coping and safety-seeking behaviors. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 34(6), 645-657. https://doi.org/10.1080/10615806.2021.1921161

Gray, E., Beierl, E. T., & Clark, D. M. (2019). Sub-types of safety behaviours and their effects on social anxiety disorders. PLoS ONE, 14(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223165

Kim, J. H., Shim, Y., Choi, I., & Choi, E. (2022). The role of coping strategies in maintaining well-being during the Covid-19 outbreak in South Korea, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 13(1), 320-332. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550621990


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