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Anxiety and Avoidance

What is avoidance?

Avoidance is a coping mechanism that involves avoiding a stressor instead of dealing with it, usually 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 often, avoiding the anxiety-provoking thing 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. In turn, this reinforcement increases the chances that the next time you are in a similar situation, you will feel even more anxious about it.

Woman sits alone on dock with her back to the camera, invoking the concept of avoidance

Excessive avoidance is part of many mental health disorders.

In particular, avoidance is a core feature of several anxiety disorders. For instance, avoidance is a distinctive feature of social anxiety disorder, phobias, and agoraphobia. It also contributes to the persistence of anxiety symptoms in generalized anxiety and panic disorder.

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! Well done, avoidance!” 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. In its attempts to keep us safe, our brain finds more and more things to “protect” us from.

When we eventually have to face a situation we have avoided, the experience can be highly overwhelming. Because our brain has learned that avoiding the situation has kept us safe, so engaging in the situation must be truly dangerous! These experiences of high anxiety can then trigger additional levels of unwanted feelings, such as frustration, guilt, shame, or despair.

Decreasing Anxiety In 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 often focuses on facing your fears, and learning to manage your stress instead of avoiding it. And it is true, that learning to cope with stress can decrease anxiety and avoidance.

Coffee cup and computer with greenery. Looks like an online therapy session.

Once learned, an avoidant behavior quickly becomes a habit. You may not even think much about the anxiety-provoking thing that you are avoiding. Instead, it may just feel like you’re going about your business and doing things in your preferred fashion. But your life may become smaller and smaller over time, as the “things to avoid” category expands. Therapy can help you to expand your life and feel less anxious engaging in activities that feel too anxiety-provoking right now.

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. 

Woman sits in chair, shrugging

So how do you know when your avoidance behavior is adaptive, and when it should be, er, avoided?

In some clinical situations, certain behaviors that we usually think of as avoidance or escape strategies can actually 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 continuing an argument where you felt very stressed. You didn’t approach the problem directly, but you did take an action that positively affects your response to the problem. It is healthy to practice techniques that help you feel calmer as you face a difficult situation. In this way, you can help empower yourself to face your stressors more effectively.

There are both positive and negative aspects to avoidance behaviors in therapy for anxiety, and some avoidance can be adaptive. When used appropriately, you can used 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 therapy for anxiety. That is, because some avoidance practices can improve a person’s sense of control, the positive features of avoidance can be incorporated into exposure treatment of anxiety.

Avoidance as a Coping Strategy

Avoidance can be a strategy that you use to manage your emotional response to a threat. While generally associated with poor outcomes, avoidance can have a protective role in the short term.

For example, denial in the course of mourning serves to protect the mourner until they are able to process the loss. It can be too much to intellectually and emotionally digest at first. Similarly, in the aftermath of a traumatic event, denial and avoidance can help regulate emotions. The sufferer needs some mental space, if the situation is unmanageable and too threatening to cope with immediately. This is not pathological; this is called being human.

Avoidance can help you step back from painful thoughts, giving you space from the negative thoughts and beliefs about the threat. This space can help individuals with anxiety better cope with negative thoughts. It can also give them time to implement some of the coping skills they have learned in therapy, such as breathing exercises or challenging irrational assumptions.

Man in red t-shirt gives thumbs up

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 have a therapist to help you sort out what avoidance is helping you, and what may be prolonging or increasing your anxiety.

Summary: Avoidance and Anxiety

Avoidance is typically discouraged in anxiety treatment, 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 in the sense that if a person views a situation as unpredictable and too dangerous, short-term disengagement might strengthen the sensation of control, enhancing the benefits of exposure treatment in therapy. 

If you are dealing with anxiety, feel free to reach out for help. It is rewarding for me to work with my clients who are struggling with anxiety, because therapy really helps! If I’m not the right fit for you as a therapist, I will help you find someone who is.

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