What is avoidance?
Avoidance is a coping mechanism where you avoid a stressor instead of dealing with it. We usually avoid things in order to decrease anxiety.
In the moment, avoidance can feel like a pretty effective way to manage anxiety. Afraid of talking in front of others? Don’t speak up in meetings or class, and bam! No anxiety!
But avoiding that anxiety often creates more stress and anxiety in the long run. In the above example, you may have trouble getting ahead at work or school, and feel unfulfilled and hard on yourself for not sharing your ideas.
Avoidance can increase anxiety
Avoiding things sends a message to our survival brain that we have successfully escaped danger by avoiding it. This message reinforces that the danger was real, which in turn increases the chances that the next time you are in a similar situation, you will feel even more anxious about it.
When you feel anxious, avoidance can help you feel less upset, worried, and afraid, which results in rapid anxiety reduction. However, what your brain has learned is, “Oh, good thing I avoided that threat! I’m safe now! I won’t try that dangerous thing again!”
Not surprisingly, this cycle reinforces the avoidance, making it harder to eventually face your fear. This is why often anxiety and avoidance can easily generalize from one thing to another.
Our brain mistakenly thinks it is protecting us from harm by avoiding something anxiety-provoking yet harmless (blank canvas, I’m looking at you!). In its attempts to keep us safe, our brain finds more and more things to “protect” us from.
When you eventually need to face a situation you have avoided, the experience can be highly overwhelming. Because your brain learned that avoiding the situation has kept us safe, engaging in the situation feels truly dangerous!
These experiences of high anxiety can then trigger additional levels of unwanted feelings, such as frustration, guilt, shame, or despair.
Decreasing Avoidance and Anxiety: Do You Need Therapy?
Because avoidance usually increases anxiety over time, avoidance behaviors are generally considered to be maladaptive forms of coping. As a result, decreasing avoidance is almost always an important target in therapy for anxiety.
Therapy for anxiety often focuses on facing your fears, and learning to manage your stress instead of avoiding it. In turn, learning to cope with stress decreases anxiety and avoidance, making it easier to face your fears.
Do you need therapy if you have anxiety? The answer really depends.
If you find yourself living smaller than you want to, and your anxiety keeps increasing, therapy might be a good idea. It can help you to expand your life and feel less anxious returning to activities that have become too anxiety-provoking for you.
Your life may have become smaller and smaller over time, as your “things to avoid” category expands. You may not think much about the anxiety-provoking things that you are avoiding. Instead, it may just feel like you’re going about your business and doing things in your preferred fashion.
Then one day, you realize that you are having trouble doing things that you want or need to do. Errands or social activities that used to be easy now feel impossible.
This is the point where I see many people reach out for help with therapy.
That said, many people are able to take advantage of self-help ways to manage anxiety, and reverse the avoidance-anxiety spiral on their own. Books, podcasts and online courses are a great place to start if therapy doesn’t feel right for you at this time.
A common theme I hear from clients who start therapy for anxiety is that they feel like they’ve lost control. Their attempts to manage their anxiety on their own are not working, and so they reach out.
Helping people decrease their avoidance is a big part of what I do as a therapist and educator. Why? Because it helps! Anxiety is very treatable.
What is Adaptive Avoidance?
Before you decide to stop avoiding everything in the name of improved mental health, it’s important to note that there can be healthy avoidance, too.
Avoidance is a pretty adaptive way to react when we feel threatened. When the brain detects a threat, we want to avoid it in order to protect ourselves. In this sense, avoidance can actually keep us safe and protect us from danger.
So how do you know when your avoidance behavior is adaptive, and when it should be, er, avoided?
In some situations, certain behaviors that we think of as avoidance or escape strategies can be good coping strategies or ways to deal with problems.
Let’s say that you avoid something stressful by doing something healthy. For example, you go on a walk instead of staring at a blank canvas and freaking out.
You didn’t approach the problem directly, but you did take an action that positively affected your response to the problem. You’ll likely return to that canvas in a better headspace. (The key is to return to it, though, and not avoid it forever!)
It is healthy to practice techniques that help you feel calmer as you face difficult situations. In this way, you empower yourself to face your stressors more effectively.
When used appropriately, you can use avoidance to strengthen your sense of control over a situation or a possible threat.
There is research supporting this idea that, depending on their roles, avoidance strategies can be a beneficial part of managing anxiety.
Avoidance as a Coping Strategy
Avoidance can be a short-term strategy to manage your emotional response to a stressful situation. It can have a protective role in the short term, even though in the long-term avoidance is likely to increase your anxiety.
For example, using denial as a coping mechanism when you’re grieving a loss serves to protect you, so that you can process the loss in smaller increments. Otherwise, it can be too much to intellectually and emotionally digest all at once.
In this case, denial is a form of avoidance that helps titrate your exposure to the painful feelings around your loss.
Seen in this way, denial and avoidance help regulate our emotions in the aftermath of a traumatic event. You need some mental space, if the situation is unmanageable and too threatening to cope with immediately. This is not pathological; this is called being human.
On a smaller scale, avoidance can help you step back from painful thoughts, giving you space from the negative thoughts and beliefs about the threat.
Even if it’s a small stressor and not a trauma, taking this mental space can help you better cope with negative thoughts, instead of reacting to them immediately.
It can also give you time to implement coping skills, such as breathing exercises or challenging irrational assumptions.
In short, escaping or withdrawing from a situation for a short time is a legitimate short-term strategy to deal with your emotions. It can help you protect your bandwidth, shore up internal and external resources, and maintain your boundaries.
It’s important to be honest with yourself about your avoidance, however. If you find yourself navigating avoidance and anxiety on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to spend some time sorting out what avoidance is helping you, and what may be prolonging or increasing your anxiety.
Summary: Avoidance and Anxiety
Avoidance is typically discouraged in dealing with anxiety, because it can contribute to the maintenance and increase of anxiety symptoms.
But, sometimes avoidance can be healthy. If you can be strategic about it, avoidance can be used as a tool, to manage your bandwidth, give you a sense of control, and empower you to side-step things when your energy would be better used elsewhere.
Research supports that some avoidance may be adaptive. If a situation feels too unpredictable and/or dangerous, short-term disengagement can strengthen your sense of control, and help you re-engage in a better headspace.
Free Anxiety Resource for Artists
If anxiety and avoidance are interfering with your creativity, I have a free resource to help shift you out of anxiety and back to making your art: “Anxious Artist’s 1-Minute Mindset Shift”
This checklist and guide teaches a quick and easy 3-step process to turn things around when you’re feeling stuck and anxious.
I also included bonus journal prompts to help you generate motivation and inspiration for your art.
It’s free and you can download it at: ballardphd.com/mindset