You’re settling yourself down on your couch to catch the latest episode of your favorite show. Beverage in one hand, the tv remote in the other, you’re just getting started when you hear your phone buzzing.You glance at your phone to see who’s calling, and immediately your heart sinks and you find yourself feeling tense, unsettled, thoughts racing and scattered. Whenever that person calls, you find yourself scrambling away in exactly the same way and eager to be as far away as possible.
Maybe you relate to this experience. Or maybe for you, it’s seeing a certain person, being in the vicinity of a particular place, when relationship conflict is around the corner, when encountering certain smells, or when you’re supposed to be in certain situations like attending a party or being out around people.
Some people get this way around animals like dogs, while for others getting onto an elevator makes them uncomfortable. Whatever it is for you, the experience sometimes feels overwhelming, and it feels like an ordeal.
Faced with these unpleasant experiences, there are at least two choices available to you; you can grin and bear it, going through the motions until the situation passes. Your other option is to walk away from the situation, towards what feels safe and unthreatening. This second option is often called avoidance. When you avoid something, usually it’s a behavior meant to protect you from something that you perceive to be a threat.
What is avoidance anxiety?
People don’t typically willingly and easily walk toward those things that make them feel anxious and afraid. The people who do that are those individuals we usually end up lauding as heroes, and as the brave among us.
It’s normal to want to avoid unpleasant things because we are hardwired to protect our well-being by avoiding things that can compromise that. That’s one reason why we tend to stay away from certain foods or restaurants if we’ve had food poisoning from them. It is self-preservation, and in most cases, it’s wise to heed those warning bells.
When you avoid the things that make you uncomfortable or that feel threatening, it can feel like the right thing to do in the moment. You feel immediate relief from any feelings of stress or anxiety that those thoughts or the situation bring up for you. However, there are some serious problems associated with this way of coping.
Avoidance anxiety is when you avoid the things that make you anxious, but the very fact of avoiding those anxiety-inducing situations itself causes more anxiety. In this way, avoidance and anxiety form a cycle that is self-reinforcing. By avoiding the things that make you anxious, while you may feel immediate relief, you’re further training your brain to avoid the anxiety-inducing situation. This creates a cycle that is hard to break.
Why avoidance hinders and doesn’t help you.
Avoidance is not the best or healthiest way to handle most situations that feel threatening or uncomfortable. As noted earlier, avoidance only serves to reinforce and strengthen those feelings of anxiety, making it harder to break out of it. Avoidance can wind up increasing your levels of anxiety without dealing with what causes you anxiety in the first place. In the end, it’s not productive.
When you avoid particular situations or environments, the next time you encounter the same situation, you’ll likely be more anxious about it and seek to avoid it even more. It creates a downward spiral where the anxiety can end up feeling worse than if you’d just addressed it directly in the first place.
For example, if you get anxious about going out with friends to a bar or the movies, you may avoid those opportunities to hang out with them. The next time they invite you out you’ll be even less likely to want to go with them, reinforcing your avoidance anxiety and continuing the cycle.
Avoidance also doesn’t lead to a better quality of life; it often leads to a diminished quality of life. Instead of embracing opportunities, stepping into challenging situations, and growing through the experience, avoidance and avoidance anxiety can make you stagnate as a person.
If you have anxieties around relationships with others, for example, you may fear losing the people closest to you, so you might avoid being honest with them. The quality of your relationships will suffer, and you’ll carry the fear that if you’re honest the relationship might end. That is a heavy burden to carry all the time.
It’s better by far to be proactive and to try and find effective coping mechanisms that allow you to enjoy your life and deal effectively with the root causes of your anxiety. Avoidance is a way of kicking the can further down the road, but it can make the problem much worse when it goes unaddressed. Avoidance anxiety merely compounds the anxiety you’re already feeling, making the problem more complicated and the knots a little harder to untangle.
Overcoming avoidance anxiety.
It is possible to overcome avoidance anxiety, just as the outlook for dealing with other forms of anxiety is good. As with any other problem, one of the first keys is to recognize how avoidance isn’t helping you. When you acknowledge to yourself that avoidance isn’t helping you, but rather hindering you, that prepares you to take the necessary steps to address not only the avoidance anxiety but the root cause of your anxiety.
Anxiety can be reduced by taking a few simple self-care steps. These include sleeping well, eating well, and taking care of your body through exercise. Our bodies, minds, and emotions are all connected and affect each other. That’s why you can get angered easily when you’re feeling hungry, or why you can’t think clearly on a poor night’s rest.
Taking care of your body and mind helps you address anxiety too. That may mean reducing your intake of caffeine or sugary drinks because that can trigger anxiety. Good sleep hygiene helps your body eliminate excess cortisol in your system, and it helps you process situations with greater emotional intelligence.
It is also important that you get help in the form of therapy. A professional can help you by examining the root cause of your anxiety, and the avoidance behaviors you employ to deal with that anxiety. Beyond this, therapy can play a constructive role by helping you learn how to express your emotions such as fear, sadness, and anxiety, productively.
Additionally, your therapist can help you with developing effective tools to cope with anxiety and distress, such as relaxation, visualization, and breathing techniques. These can help you self-regulate and maintain an even keel during difficult times.
A type of cognitive behavioral therapy called exposure therapy is highly effective in helping one tackle avoidance behaviors and anxiety. Exposure involves entering into a feared or anxiety-inducing situation to get exposed to it gradually, remaining there until your anxiety lessens.
This is done repeatedly until your anxiety diminishes over time and you can cope effectively in everyday situations. This form of therapy allows you to approach the situations that cause you anxiety and grow in your confidence to navigate them. Exposure therapy is something you and your therapist can discuss and decide whether it is a good option for you.
Anxiety robs a person of joy, and time and energy that could be directed toward enjoying life. Anxiety can be so extreme that it undermines a person’s well-being and everyday functioning. This is by no means what God desires for people. Jesus came into the world so that people might believe in Him and have abundant life (John 10:10).
If you’re feeling anxious or feel that anxiety has a grip on your life, seek help from a mental health professional. They can help you reclaim your joy and restore a sense of peace in your life. Contact our office today for help.
“Waterfall”, courtesy of Enyioma Adu, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Natural Bridge”, Courtesy of Karthik Sreenivas, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunset”, Courtesy of Nikolay Glebov, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sun Behind the Tree”, Courtesy of Neelakshi Singh, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.