Safety Seeking

Safety seeking behaviors are one of the most common reasons we see people having difficulties getting over their fears.  Safety seeking behaviors are when people look for ways out of the situation or ways to feel safe.  They often make a person feel better in the short-term, but in the long-term it reinforces the idea that he or she can’t handle their fear (see some common examples below).  That is, by seeking safety in situations, people are actually telling themselves that the situation is dangerous and that they should plan ways to be safe.

An alternative approach (one that leads to long-term reduction in anxiety) is to take on the fear with an attitude that it might be uncomfortable, but no matter what happens I will survive.  When a person takes on this attitude, he or she goes through the exposure in a way that says I can handle my fears.  This attitude allows the person to experience the anxiety and to build up ‘immunity’ to it.  Therefore, we try to have the person give up all safety seeking behaviors during exposures. We find that once a person gets this principle and gives in to the feared experience, it is like flipping a light switch.  That is, the person then seems to get better very quickly.

In previous research we have conducted we find that those who eliminate their safety seeking behaviors were the ones who continued their gains after therapy.  Therefore, we find it is important to knockout all safety seeking behaviors, for long-term change.

Here are some common examples of Safety Seeking Behaviors:


  • Sitting, resting, or relaxing anytime one’s heart beats faster;
  • Carrying water in case of dry-mouth;
  • Having someone nearby if a panic attack occurred;
  • Carrying a cell-phone or medication, just in case of a panic attack


  • Sitting in the back of the room;
  • Wearing clothes that don’t show sweating or blushing;
  • Carrying water in case of dry-mouth;
  • Making sure people are friendly;
  • Avoiding eye contact

Scholarly articles

Salkovskis, P. M., Clark, D. M., Hackmann, A., Wells, A., & Gelder, M. G. (1999). An experimental investigation of the role of safety-seeking behaviours in the maintenance of panic disorder with agoraphobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 37(6), 559–574.

Sloan, T., & Telch, M. J. (2002). The effects of safety-seeking behavior and guided threat reappraisal on fear reduction during exposure: An experimental investigation. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40(3), 235–251.