10 Mar Why Avoidance of your Fears Increases Anxiety
Anxiety is a strong feeling of worry and concern about a perceived threat to our safety. It doesn’t mean that there is actually a threat, but our brain senses a threat and wants to keep us safe. Anxiety can be persistent and overwhelming and can also result in physical changes such as a racing heart and difficulty breathing. It can lessen our belief in our own abilities to deal with these threats. It. Anxiety can become an issue when it negatively impacts our daily functioning in our social, occupational, or relational lives. [For more details about the difference between anxious moments and clinical anxiety, please see my Beyond the Bio https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npoN0MIKPFE.]
Anxiety can cause us such discomfort that we often do all we can to avoid feeling so uncomfortable. We think that this will be helpful for us, but in the end, avoidance behaviors can often increase our anxious thoughts and reduce our self-confidence.
What are avoidance behaviors?
There are so many avoidance behaviors we can engage in when we are feeling anxious about something! Categories of avoidance behaviors include situational (person, location, scenario); cognitive (avoiding thinking about something); protective (modifying environment for safety including good luck items); somatic (restricting activities that produce a physical response), and substitution avoidance (substance use, redirection) – or even a combination of some, or all, of these avoidance strategies.
Examples of common avoidance behaviors include procrastination; taking a cab instead of the bus or subway, even though it’s more expensive; saying no to invitations for events; calling off work to avoid a difficult meeting, binge watching a show to avoid a challenging task; scrolling on your phone; staying at a job when you’re unhappy because you are concerned about change; or intentionally not thinking about something that is bothering you – the list is almost endless. Sometimes, our avoidance behaviors can be more subtle like attending an event but needing a friend to go with you or staying near the exit for a quick getaway.
The issue with avoidance behaviors is that they confirm our misguided beliefs that there was something threatening to avoid. This can then increase our vigilance for other imagined threats to our safety.
But wait, isn’t avoiding anxiety a good thing?
Reducing anxiety is a good thing but avoiding it is not! Avoidance behaviors can reinforce a cycle of anxiety that increases in intensity and/or frequency with each loop. Avoidance of an uncomfortable situation provides short-term relief from the feelings of anxiety, but it doesn’t last long. Avoiding a situation can confirm our fear and worry about it which leads to a false belief that we were right to be worried and to avoid the situation, even when the threat is only in our imagination. Each time we are faced with the same situation, our need to avoid it grows, as does the short-term relief we feel from avoiding it, but it also increases our awareness in our environment, and we can perceive more and more situations as a threat. This increased hypervigilance for potential threats then increases our long-term anxiety.
Let’s look at an example of how the cycle of anxiety works. You have just been given a big work project, and you are not sure of the goals of the project, but you feel too nervous about clarifying with your boss. Instead of asking questions and facing the challenge directly, you adopt a common avoidance behavior – procrastination – and delay completing the work. The avoidance of this task may seem like it provides with you some temporary relief, but you still feel stressed about the project and it’s constantly on your mind. You haven’t left enough time to complete the task on time and you rush to get something done. Your boss may provide you with negative feedback, which results in a loss of confidence in your capabilities. The next time you are assigned a project, your anxiety soars. Once again, procrastination seems like a good option since you doubt your abilities to complete it, but the stress and anxiety experienced is even greater than last time. You also begin to doubt your abilities to complete other aspects of your work and your anxiety about your overall work performance increases.
How can I improve my anxiety symptoms, but not engage in avoidance behaviors?
Anxiety can be very convincing that a challenging situation is a potential threat that you need to be worried about, but fears can often be irrational and inappropriate to the situation. We are not able to function effectively when we are in a state of anxiety because our mind and body move into survival or protection mode. Reducing anxiety symptoms can help us to see any potential threat from a sense of calm and take action to address it.
A therapist can assist you to rationally assess your feelings of anxiety and worry and support you to find active coping skills and strategies to reduce your anxiety levels and function from a calmer and more relaxed state.
The first step to any kind of change is awareness. Awareness that you are utilizing avoidance behaviors is essential to understand the anxiety and feelings beneath the behavior. Journaling can be a great way of noticing thought and behavior patterns. A therapist can also be extremely helpful in identifying maladaptive coping habits and negative thought patterns.
Mindfulness activities such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and grounding techniques can help in reducing the anxiety symptoms enough to allow you to be less reactive and more confident in your abilities. Meditation is also extremely helpful for easing anxiety symptoms. These skills will encourage a productive loop of positive reinforcement, where lowered stress levels enable you to feel more confident in a challenging situation.
It can be difficult to find the right balance and awareness for when a behavior is avoiding anxiety or when mindfulness techniques or self-care are needed to restore and replenish your energy. Sometimes it’s easier to change habits gradually – step-by-step – and other times, a complete change can be more beneficial. A therapist can also assist you with finding the right path for you.
Break out of the vicious cycle of anxiety– reach out today to schedule a consultation with me to confront anxiety with support and understanding.
Lebow, H. I. (2022, June 24). What are the five types of avoidance behavior? https://psychcentral.com/health/types-of-avoidance-behavior
Scott, E. (2022, October 31). Avoidance coping and why it creates additional stress. https://www.verywellmind.com/avoidance-coping-and-stress-4137836#:~:text=Procrastination%2C%20passive%2Daggressiveness%2C%20and,are%20forms%20of%20avoidance%20coping.
Therapist Aid. The cycle of anxiety. https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/cycle-of-anxiety