What you do when you can’t escape: 2nd Wave Safety Behaviours

Anyone wrestling with GAD, OCD, Social Anxiety, or any anxiety disorder for that matter, quickly identifies a ‘symptom profile’. This profile usually includes a relatively developed understanding of their primary ‘safety behaviours’. These are usually 1 or 2 obvious activities that provide immediate reassurance from building anxiety.

Seeing as the anxiety response finds its most natural outworking in escape, most primary safety behaviours are also escape orientated: I often walk my parents-in-laws dog in some deep woods populated with rabbits. You can see them laying still in the grass until the anxiety of the approaching dog reaches a peak and they shoot off for their burrows at lightning speed. So too with those suffering social anxiety who often wait in a public environment for as long as they can manage before the anxiety become intolerable and they make haste to the exits. OCDers do the same thing but their escape is to their compulsions and the GAD’s to their ruminations.

Escape is the most understandable expression of an anxiety problem. Because these behaviours are so familiar and ‘safe’ they become almost automatic. Of course the sufferer has to work hard to postpone the responses or overcome them if they are to recover, but only in rare cases do they have cause for concern about the behaviour itself.

The question I want to address here is one raised by several Christians who have found themselves surprised by a secondary range of safety behaviours. These are far less familiar and come into play when their primary safety behaviour is unavailable to them. In short, what happens when you can’t escape?

Because of the irregularity of their use, many anxiety sufferers find themselves completely bemused, and sometimes completely ashamed of what they do with seemingly little control over events. If you go back to the rabbits in the woods, when all escape routes are closed, they may attack, feign death, or even affection towards the dog.

If we can equate powerful anxiety to the proximity of death (after all this is biological function) we can see the logic in these illogical 2nd wave safety behaviours which so often appear to orientate themselves around comfort: Comfort eating, Comfort sex or pornography, tantrums/emotional manipulation to illicit comfort from others or self-harm/self –injury to illicit sympathy and attention. It is quite a serious list when you look at it and it's clear why so may Christians have expressed their dismay when these things have taken hold.

Of course the apparently tangential nature of these behaviours means that they are not being associated with anxiety, therefore individuals are ill prepared to deal with them when they arise. If we are to defend against these pernicious 2nd wave safety behaviours, which clearly have moral implications then it is essential that the anxiety and not the morality are addressed in the first instance. None of the individuals I have counselled on this issue are of morally questionable yet they all described an overwhelming experience within which they, “Found themselves,” doing what they knew they must not do. Recovery comes through CBT approaches to dealing with the anxiety and E & RP (Exposure and Response Prevention). More about these tools can be found in the anxiety section of this site.

I am reminded of the value of 1 Peter 5:8, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Anxiety can be like a form of drunkenness where the urge to escape can overwhelm principles and values. It is at the place of being overwhelmed that spiritual opposition is greatest. If this blog resonates with you try to talk through your experiences with a trusted Christian friend. If you are able, put safeguards in place that mean if escape is not available to you (and remember escape is not recovery) you do not default into an altogether more dangerous safety behaviour.
Will Van Der Hart, 24/07/2013