The Top 3 Safety-Seeking Behaviors That Quickly Become Compulsions

4 min read
April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

What are safety behaviors, or safety-seeking behaviors? They are anything we do to help us feel better and safer when facing the “threats” that obsessive-compulsive disorder presents. Safety-seeking behaviors are the short-term relief strategies that we naturally drift toward when feeling highly anxious, regardless of whether we have OCD, an anxiety disorder or any other mental health concern. It’s human nature to want to feel safe and secure, so these safety-seeking behaviors are used daily, by everyone, to a lesser degree. 

Why are safety-seeking behaviors a problem?

Safety-seeking behaviors give us a false sense of security — and they do this at the expense of long-term relief. When we engage in a safety-seeking behavior, we train our brain to give into these strategies to get the short-term relief we crave, which only perpetuates the idea that we aren’t safe in the first place. Ultimately, it actually exacerbates our overall discomfort and anxiety. When we feel relief and our feared consequence doesn’t happen, we attribute it to the fact that we did a safety-seeking behavior, instead of the fact that most of our feared catastrophic consequences wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

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A short story to illustrate this principle: If you are ever at the NOCD headquarters in downtown Chicago, you may see a man walking down Michigan Avenue carrying a 25-foot bamboo pole. If you ask him why he has it, he will politely say, “It keeps the elephants away.” If you say to him, “Sir, there are no elephants in Chicago,” he will reply, “I know. The pole works very well, doesn’t it?”

In short, these safety-seeking behaviors quickly become compulsions in the world of OCD.

To treat OCD, we need to flip the script and endure short-term discomfort so that we get long-term relief. That’s what exposure and response prevention therapy aims to do. ERP is the gold-standard treatment for OCD. 

The 3 most common safety-seeking behaviors

With OCD, each person has unique compulsions they do to attempt to resolve the anxiety and distress generated by their unique obsessions. However, there are three common short-term strategies that most people resort to when they’re highly anxious: reassurance-seeking, distraction and avoidance. What’s tricky is that they do work, temporarily at least, which is exactly why they quickly become compulsions in the context of OCD. Let’s explore what each of these safety-seeking behaviors can look like. 

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Even though we might feel relief after getting a hit of reassurance, that relief quickly wears off and leaves us wanting more. Photo via Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Safety-seeking behavior #1: reassurance-seeking

Reassurance-seeking differs from information-seeking. When we want information, we ask informed questions to people who are qualified to answer them, and we accept whatever answer they give us. When we want reassurance, we repeatedly ask anyone and everyone questions that are often unanswerable, and we don’t accept their answers unless they give us the absolute certainty we’re seeking. We can seek reassurance from other people, from the internet and from ourselves (telling ourselves over and over again something like, “Everything will be okay; I would NEVER do XYZ”).

Even though we might feel relief after getting a hit of reassurance, that relief quickly wears off and leaves us wanting more. The more reassurance you get, the more you want, mostly because OCD will punch holes in your reassurance each time, rendering you anxious once again until you get more. Reassurance keeps us stuck.

Safety-seeking behavior #2: distraction

Distraction often looks different whenever we engage in it. It can be something we do externally (a Netflix binge, going for a drive, reading a book or talking to a friend) or internally (singing a song in your head, doing a guided meditation to visualize your “happy place” or working out some sort of mental problem not related to your OCD triggers, like a work or school project). 

Distraction might also be a way that you can make it look like you are doing your feared behavior, like flying on a plane if you have a fear of flying, but you aren’t really being present in the moment because you are busy doing crossword puzzles, listening to music or talking to the passenger next to you. 

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Safety-seeking behavior #3: avoidance

When all else fails, there’s always avoidance. It’s a simple tactic. Something scares you? Just avoid it! Depending on your fear, this might be easier for some triggers than others. With OCD, it’s pretty hard to avoid things like intrusive thoughts because we don’t control those, and we carry our brain with us everywhere we go, which can serve up one of those intrusive thoughts at any time. In those cases, avoidance might look more like avoiding the external cues that can trigger those intrusive thoughts, like knives if you have harm OCD or kids if you have POCD. Avoidance is a problem because it signals to your brain that whatever you are avoiding is truly “dangerous,” whereas when you face your fears you learn you can handle them and they aren’t the big, bad dangers OCD tries to convince you they are.

Any and all of these safety-seeking behaviors can become compulsive in nature, so it’s important to be on the lookout for them creeping into your routine. And just as with regular compulsions, the treatment of choice is exposure and response prevention therapy.

If you recognize these behaviors as part of your OCD, please reach out to NOCD today so we can help you find a better way and exchange that short-term relief for long-term success.

April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

April Kilduff, MA, LCPC April is a nOCD therapist who has exclusively treated OCD & anxiety disorders, as well as their intersection with the Autism spectrum, for over a decade. Her path to this career started with her own journey dealing with panic attacks, perfectionism & a couple phobias. When not working on exposures with members, you can find her at home reading books & hanging out with her two cats or out taking pictures & traveling the world.

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I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

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When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

Tamara Harrison

Tamara Harrison

Licensed Therapist, MA

I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.

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