Are You Too Reliant on Your Coping Strategies For Anxiety?
If you have been living with anxiety perhaps you already have coping strategies that are getting you through situations that you find difficult or distressing. These could be distraction techniques, like listening to music, reading a magazine, or focusing upon an object (e.g. a photograph or holding something that’s important to you) or focusing upon your surroundings. It could be having the support of a friend or loved one with you for those times when you feel anxious.
It may well be that your coping strategies are helping you; but it’s important to spend a little time to assess whether all of them are helpful in the long run. We can become dependent on coping strategies; in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) we call this a safety behaviour. Here are a few examples: holding onto something (this could be an object or a railing) when you worry you might pass ou,t or looking out for how you could quickly leave a situation if you get really panicky. It could be trying hard to push thoughts away, though they usually come back even stronger if we do this. Listening to music or always going out with a friend when you feel anxious can turn into a safety behaviour. Even relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, can become a safety behaviour.
So what we mean is, if you are reliant on your coping strategy, you never give yourself the chance to discover that your fear, your worst case scenario, won’t actually come true; it won’t be as bad as you imagine or predict it to be. A safety behaviour is a kind of avoidance, whether this be distraction (avoidance from thoughts or feelings), or looking for how you can escape a situation (again avoidance).
I'm certainly not suggesting that you just stop using your coping strategies at once. After all, you have come this far with them, so this isn’t a bad thing at all! Some of these strategies could be very helpful for you. You may well be thinking, well how do I know if what I am doing is a healthy coping strategy or a safety behaviour? Just ask yourself, am I becoming too reliant on them? Are they making my anxiety problem stronger and keeping the anxiety going in the long run? Am I trying to avoid situations, my thoughts, my feelings?
Coping strategies can help in the short-term; but as you work through your anxiety by yourself, or with a professional, you will learn new techniques and gradually reduce them. For example, if you have a loved one who goes with you when you need to take the train or bus, try getting them to meet you five minutes into the journey, then the next time 10 minutes into the journey, then 20 minutes and so on. Don’t stop your safety behaviours all at once, take it easy on yourself and just go one step at a time.