Written by UWaterloo Faculty of Arts

Nick MA candidate | Psychology

Nick MA candidate | Psychology by UWaterloo Faculty of Arts

Say you’re about to walk into a party. You don’t know anyone but the host, and you feel a little nervous. You take up a position on the wall and survey the room, letting your anxiety settle before diving in.

Now, imagine your anxiety soars anytime your back isn’t to that wall. That kind of reaction might suggest a clinical level of anxiety.

Most of us use safety behaviours like staying on the periphery of a party to help us cope with anxiety. Safety behaviours can become a problem, though, for people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder. In therapeutic circles, safety behaviours are generally viewed as unhealthy crutches that reinforce anxiety, and most treatment plans involve ending them immediately.

Nick Zabara wonders whether there might be a gentler way.

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Nick Zabara
Psychology master's student Nick Zabara in the Centre for Mental Health Research.

Zabara is wrapping up an MA in Psychology at the University of Waterloo and preparing to enter the PhD program. His research indicates that not all safety behaviours are the same, and some might even be usefully incorporated into treatment for social anxiety. “Recent studies are finding that safety behaviours can be incorporated into treatment for other anxiety disorders to make it a little bit less scary,” he says. “I wanted to see if that’s true for social anxiety — if we can figure out whether some of these social coping strategies that people use can be incorporated into treatment.”

A chance encounter with an old set of textbooks in his high school library set off Zabara’s love of psychology. His interest in anxiety in particular, he says, stems from its universality: no group seems immune to it. While everyone experiences anxiety, about 13 per cent of Canadians will have a diagnosable anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Zabara says his next research steps involve testing out his theories in a lab on actual human subjects to help determine which kinds of safety behaviours might be useful, and which need to be cut off quickly. After the PhD — which involves clinical placements, service at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Mental Health Research, as well as coursework and research projects — Zabara is hoping to find work in a hospital. “Clinical work is my primary aim — I’ve always wanted to take my research and apply it,” he says. “I’d like to work with clients and help them, that’s always been a passion of mine. But at the same time I love teaching and I’m very passionate about my research. I’d love to continue all three.”