Safety nets are ways to avoid situations, places and things that cause us anxiety. Safety nets come in many different sizes and shapes. Some examples include:
- Patricia is afraid to go to the mall or crowded areas and will only go if she has a friend along. Her friend is your safety net.
- Jon is afraid of driving on the highway and will take an alternative route, even though it takes him twice as long to get where he is going. The alternative route is Jon's safety net.
- Jake is afraid of having a panic attack when he leaves the house. He keeps his anti-anxiety medication clenched in his hand the entire time he is out of the house. He knows if he begins to have a panic attack, he can quickly take his medication. The medication is Jake's safety net.
Safety nets can be anything you use to help avoid confronting a situation. While safety nets often help in the short-term by allowing you to face a situation or place, they tend to reinforce your fear and prolong your anxiety. For example, if Patricia only goes to the mall with a friend, she reinforces the idea that the mall is a dangerous place.
Anxiety treatment frequently includes exposure therapy- a way to slowly face your fears. Exposure therapy teaches you that what you are afraid of is not dangerous. For example, if you are afraid of dogs, you might go through a series of steps to confront your fear:
- Looking at pictures of dogs
- Looking at a dog through a glass door
- Being in the same room as a dog, but across the room
- Moving closer to the dog
- Petting the dog
As you go through each step, you learn that the situation is not dangerous. Once you feel comfortable, you move to the next step.
We often use exposure therapy without realizing it. Imagine a child who is afraid of going into a swimming pool. His mother might have him reach down and touch the water. Then she may have him sit on the side of the pool with his feet in the water. As he gets comfortable, she brings him to the steps and stand on each step, feeling the water and becoming comfortable before going in deeper. The mother is using exposure therapy to help her child face his fear of the swimming pool.
Eliminating Safety Nets
In the early parts of exposure therapy, there are some built in safety nets. In the example of the fear of dogs, for example, the safety nets would be the glass window or having the dog on a leash on the other side of the room. Eventually, if you are going to get past your fear, you need to let go of your safety nets.
There are two ways to eliminate safety nets. You can dive right in or you can slowly let go.
If you have identified your safety nets, and understand how you use them, one way to eliminate them is to simply stop using them. Although this is difficult to do, Drs. Anthony and Norton, in the book The Anti-Anxiety Workbook, state, "Many find it best to give them (safety nets) up all at once - this is probably the best idea."
In our first example, Patricia is afraid to go to the mall. She only goes when a friend goes with her. Eliminating the safety net means Patricia needs to go to the mall alone. Even though this is a terrifying thought, Patricia heads off to the mall at a time it isn't too crowded. She walks around for about 15 minutes and realizes she isn't so anxious. Patricia has learned that the mall isn't a dangerous place and while it might still be scary next time, each time she goes to the mall alone it is less frightening than the time before.
Slowly Letting Go
If it is too difficult for you to dive right in and get rid of your safety net, slowly weaning yourself off is the next best thing. Patricia might take going to the mall in steps:
- Day 1: Patricia and her friend, Joanie, go to the mall together
- Day 2: Patricia and Joanie go to the mall, Joanie stays in the car but they both have their cell phones and Patricia talks to Joanie on the phone while she is in the mall
- Day 3: Patricia and Joanie go to the mall, Joanie stays in the car and they both have their cell phones but keep them turned off
- Day 4: Patricia and Joanie go to the mall, Joanie stays in the car and they keep both their cell phones in the car
- Day 5: Patricia goes to the mall alone
In both examples, diving in and slowly letting go, the goal was for Patricia to be able to go to the mall by herself. In both examples, Patricia accomplished her goal. Whether you dive right in or slowly let go, you can work to identify your safety net and create a plan to face your fears.
The Anti-Anxiety Workbook, 2009, Martin M. Antony, Ph.D. and Peter J. Norton, Ph.D., The Guilford Press, New York