Facing Avoidance Anxiety
Awareness is often the first step in this process. Avoidance is the attempt to minimize and ward off any perceived threat, danger, or fear, says Michael G. Wetter, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, California.
“In the most basic terms, the function of avoidance is to protect us from what we perceive as a threat,” he says. “The degree to which we avoid is directly related and associated with the level of perceived threat or danger.”
Your idea of what is threatening is entirely relative, he explains. “Sometimes these fears are based on experiences, for example ‘I was bitten by a dog, so now I’m afraid to approach dogs.’ Sometimes they are just cognitive, like ‘I think getting bitten by a dog would be awful, so I’ll avoid dogs,'” says Wetter.
By determining your specific avoidance anxiety behavior, you can better address it.
Why is avoidance so important?
We’re all trying to get more of the things we like and less of the things we don’t like. People of all ages do this, and so do animals – it’s universal. How could that be a problem? For people with anxiety issues, this natural tendency causes real problems.
People with anxiety disorders do not like to be anxious. So, The problem is when someone has a tendency to become very anxious and a strong habit of avoiding things that make them anxious.
Anxiety disorders cause significant problems in the lives of those affected. Examples of anxiety disorders include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias.
How does avoidance lead to anxiety disorders?
Avoiding something once is okay. Even if you avoid it ten times, it probably won’t affect your life that much. But over time, and with enough repetition, this habit makes your anxiety worse through a process called avoidance conditioning.
The concept of avoidance conditioning is that the more you control your fear by avoiding something, the more likely you are to continue avoiding it. That’s true, no matter how important this thing may be in your life. (This cycle is a form of negative reinforcement, an important concept in understanding fear.)
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re afraid of online dating. Every day you think you do it but don’t act on that thought makes it easier to skip it the next day, and the next, and the next. Eventually, online dating could completely fall off your radar.
Here’s another example: Let’s say you like jogging. One day you get a severely sprained ankle while jogging on a street near your home. After you are healed, you may be tempted to skip the run altogether, thinking you are better safe than sorry. This may seem reasonable in the short term, but you may end up finding that your health has suffered from less exercise and you end up with one less passion in life.
Different Types of Avoidance Behaviors
1. Situational avoidance
This is the most common type of avoidance, McKay says in his book. Avoidance of situations refers to staying away from people, places, things, or activities that seem to activate you. It’s a formal symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like a veteran avoiding the outdoors during a holiday fireworks display, or a survivor of a mass shooting avoiding crowded public spaces.
It can also occur in people without PTSD, McKay writes, as well as those who avoid:
2. Cognitive AvoidanceThis kind of avoidance is an inside job. Cognitive avoidance refers to actively turning your thoughts away from disturbing thoughts or memories. This may involve consciously telling yourself, “Don’t think about those things.” It can also take the form of distracting yourself, dissociating, fantasizing, or even toxic positivity.
“You might fill your mind with distracting fantasies or daydream or repeat mental rituals, such as saying certain happiness phrases over and over in your head. Sometimes ritualized prayers or affirmations serve a similar purpose, with the repeated words and phrases bringing back memories or thoughts. that disturb you drown out,” writes McKay.
In some cases, it can also take the form of chronic worries or obsessions. You may be constantly preparing for the “what ifs” by going over (and over and over again) certain details, plans, or scenarios in your head in the hope that it will protect you from future disasters or disappointment.
3. Protective Avoidance
Protective avoidance refers to actions in your physical environment that help you feel more secure in your inner world, including:
- compulsive cleaning
- rituals that reinforce your sense of security
- storage of lucky charms or talismans
These behaviors are often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders, such as counting objects, washing things, or checking locks multiple times. Similar protective rituals can also be seen in eating disorders, such as preparing food ingredients in a specific order each time.
“Perfectionism and over-preparing for class or work can also be a form of protective avoidance. Conversely, you might try to avoid risk by procrastinating and postponing a dreaded task or event,” McKay writes.
4. Somatic Avoidance
Somatic avoidance refers to the avoidance of situations that evoke a physical response similar to fear or stress response.
“Rapid heartbeats and tingling in the extremities all exist as a form of somatic experience that many people associate with panic, anxiety, or frightening illnesses,” Wetter explains. “Therefore, people who avoid this type of somatic reaction will also tend to avoid activities or situations that trigger such reactions, such as roller coasters, thrill rides, and precarious situations.”
This can also include:
- exciting events
- falling in love
- feeling fatigued (such as after exercising)
- sexual arousal
- changes in temperature
5. Substitution Avoidance
Substitution avoidance can take shape both internally and externally.
Internally, it could be like replacing certain feelings, like sadness or sadness, with something that feels more acceptable to you, like anger. Outwardly, this may seem like some kind of crutch for coping with emotional pain, such as alcohol, food, drugs, sex, or anything else that provides temporary respite from unpleasant emotions.
This is a common feature of substance use disorders. “Cultivating generalized numbness can serve the same purpose. And some people turn to the excitement of gambling, risky behavior, video games, or Internet pornography to replace or cover up painful feelings they wish to avoid,” McKay writes.
Get Help for Avoidance Anxiety
One of the most effective strategies for treating anxiety disorders is exposure therapy, which has its roots in behaviorism and learning theories that began in the early 20th century (Watson, 1924). Since then, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has emerged as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders (for example, Carpenter et al., in press; Hofmann Smits, 2008).
Avoidance is part of your wiring as a human. In some cases, avoidance can become a way of life. Not only can this hinder personal growth and the satisfaction that comes from overcoming your fears, but it can also reduce the overall quality of your life.
If you feel that avoidance anxiety is disrupting your life and stunting your potential, please contact our offices and get in touch with a counselor. We all have to deal with unpleasant things in our life, and it is natural to set them aside in favor of pleasure. However, the sooner you do what you need to do to heal, the more you will be able to do what you want to do.
“Autumn Leaves”, Courtesy of Chris Lawton, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “The Long Road”, Courtesy of Matt Duncan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lakeshore”, Courtesy of Samuel Ferrara, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bonfire”, Courtesy of Timothy Meinberg, Unsplash.com, CC0 License