Craig D. Marker Ph.D. wrote [when talking about social anxiety], “People with anxiety often perform “safety behaviors” during anxiety provoking situations. These safety behaviors make the person feel more comfortable in the situation by providing temporary relief from anxiety. However, safety behaviors have been described as the major cause of persisting anxiety and the reason why people don’t feel relief during exposures (Wells, Clark, Salkovskis, Ludgate, Hackmann, & Gelder, 1995).”

Let me (Gunars) apply this to people with developmental stuttering. The most prevalent example of safety behavior is the use of all types of avoidances, circumlocutions, and pauses. No doubt, the person may feel temporarily better by using these avoidances and getting out of the stressful situation. “However, this behavior is basically telling the person’s body that this situation is dangerous and he or she has to do something to remain safe. That is, whenever a person performs a safety behavior, he or she is reinforcing the idea that the situation is very dangerous.” Here are some other safety behaviors that a person with developmental stuttering has picked up in his journey through the world:

  1. Not engaging new persons at a social gathering, but sticking with those you know (for the fear of being rejected by someone who for the first time learns that one is a person who stutters);
  2. Choosing a location at a lecture that is out of the way;
  3. Averting eye contact;
  4. Drinking alcohol to feel less anxious; and
  5. Taking non-speaking roles;
  1. caffeine, spicy food, physical exertion,      warm clothing)

Dr. Marker continues with Private therapy london has to offer “Multiple research studies have shown that safety seeking behaviors actually harm people’s abilities to get past the anxiety in situations (e.g., Furukawa et al., 2009; Kim, 2005; McManus, Sacurda, & Clark, 2008; Wells et al., 1995).”

Dr. Marker continues– and I fully have observed the same thing–that there are many clients who have been themselves repeatedly to situations that they fear without having a significant reduction in anxiety. One of my Skype clients lamented that he has a stand-up status meeting every day, but instead of having reduced anxiety he is as anxious as ever. Further pursuit of the actual situation revealed that he still did some behaviors which I would hardly call “totally facing or exposing himself to be vulnerable in the situations. For example, he tries to remain out of sight of the executives in charge of the meeting, when there is a teleconference, he does his best not to talk more than absolutely necessary, and when a meeting ends, he makes sure that he is one of the first who is gone. All these actions are safety behaviors. These multiple “safety behaviors led his body to believe that the situation was much more dangerous than it actually was”.

One of the London speakers at the IFA Congress tended to dismiss safety behaviors as rational and excusable. I respectfully, but vehemently disagree. The Psychotherapists go on to say We, as psychologists, SLP’s in the role of counselors, and self-therapists should look for situations where any type of safety behaviors are used. Then we need to systematically try to eliminate these safety behaviors. Only if we over the time reduce them more and more can we expect a reduction in the intense feeling of anxiety and fear. It is necessary for us to push them, first to give them some feeling of success and later to really reduce the anxiety.

This is one instance when we cannot rely on the “wisdom of the client to do what is right.” We should ask them to push the envelope. The more they try to justify that in some situations they need the respite of having some situations where they are allowed to use avoidances, the more we should—without blaming—expect them to eliminate as much of these behaviors as possible. Of course, we must acknowledge that we are never going to achieve perfection. But we are better off installing in them a guilt-free admission that this was a slip-up, a mistake to be tried to be avoided in future.

I posit, that over time if you teach the clients to build tolerance for discomfort they will be able to do “the opposite of what their anxiety tells them to do”, “If you think it will feel bad, do it!” I suggest that the client develop self-talk akin to the body-building maxim: There is no gain without pain. Or as Albert Ellis—when you took the explicative’s out of it–said, “Push your tush”.

When I ask my clients to use easy bounces to advertise stuttering, I give them the gift of “safety opposite” or “contrarian to safety” exercises. These exercises are telling their bodies that there is nothing truly dangerous and they are fully able to cope. They have then switched from anxiety constructing to anxiety demolishing behaviors.

Let us consider Alden and Bieling (1998) study of social anxiety and safety behaviors. They found out that safety behaviors among people with social anxiety, lead to more awkward behaviors that translated in less likeability. And what was the consequence? These people were negatively evaluated, the result that they feared the most. When I look at my stuttering clients, I see the same results. If I am not able to convince the clients to drop their safety behaviors, they appear to be less socially desirable. The topping on the cake is—as I will emphasize more to my clients—“you are doing a disservice to others by playing safe. In the life—which is a moveable feast—you are depriving people who you meet to know your true self.