If you have social anxiety, you may avoid situations you find difficult, such as talking to strangers, being the centre of attention or going to social events.
If you cannot avoid a feared event you may try to cope by using safety behaviours, which are a more subtle way of avoiding aspects of a situation you find uncomfortable. They are different for everyone, but they may involve staying quiet or remaining on the edge of a group and avoiding eye contact. Those with social anxiety may avoid talking about themselves, expressing their opinions, or doing anything to bring attention to themselves. Conversely some may talk too much, talk too fast or be hyper-vigilant towards others in an attempt to spot signs of disapproval or rejection.
Subtle safety behaviours can include asking too many questions (to avoid having to speak about themselves), only talking about safe subjects (like work), talking too quietly or being monotone or unanimated. Others may rehearse each sentence before they speak in case they get tongue-tied and reveal themselves as nervous or socially unskilled.
Safety behaviours and avoidance are usually counter-productive, as they end up reinforcing the idea that social situations really are dangerous. They can also backfire in that behaviours such as avoiding eye contact or being overly quiet may actually draw the attention of others rather than avoid it.
CBT therapists encourage their clients to gradually face their feared situations and drop safety behaviours, so that over time their anxiety decreases and they are able to behave in a more ‘natural’ and comfortable way.