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  • Writer's pictureJessica Lankmann, RP

The Link Between Anxiety and Avoidance

One of the things that I find myself frequently explaining to my clients is the link between anxiety and avoidance. More often than not, when someone is feeling anxious, they experience a strong urge to avoid whatever it is that is causing them anxiety. This instinctual urge is why anxiety and avoidance tend to go hand in hand.
Wondering how you can avoid avoidance and get relief from your anxiety? Check out my blog post below and learn how psychotherapy can help you take back control of your life.

Avoidance provides relief

If you are an avoider, you already know very well that avoiding the source of your anxiety will actually provide you with some relief. In avoiding the source of your anxiety, you will in fact feel better and less anxious. This relief is nice and rewarding and it will ultimately result in you being more likely to use this maladaptive strategy the next time your anxiety strikes. This may not seem like such a bad thing at first, you get relief and you feel better. It’s a win-win situation right? The problem is that the relief will ALWAYS be temporary and your anxiety WILL come back.

For example, you got into a disagreement with your neighbour and you are feeling anxious about running into them again. What better way to get rid of the anxiety than to not go out when you see your neighbour watering their front lawn. By choosing to stay inside, you don’t have to talk with them, and therefore, you don’t have to feel anxious. This works great right? In the short term, yes; in the long-term, not so much. Now every time you think of leaving the house you are on high alert; you scan the neighbourhood looking for your neighbour and you rush out when the coast is clear. You cannot avoid your neighbour forever and even if you tried, you would end up never leaving your home

Short-term relief with long-term consequences

The goal of avoidance is to help decrease the anxiety response quickly, and it actually works quite well. In the short term, you don’t have to experience all the unpleasant physical sensations linked to your anxiety and you don’t have to worry about managing the thoughts that come with them. However, long-term avoidance can be problematic.

Avoidance will always provide only momentary relief and the anxiety will return in full force, if not stronger, in the future. The intensity of your physical symptoms are likely to increase and your confidence in your capacity to manage and cope with your anxiety will be negatively impacted. In the long run you will tend to avoid more and more, and it can easily take over your life.

I often explain to clients that avoidance is like a balloon.

At first, it’s small as there is no air in it. The more air, or in this case people, places, things, thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations you add to the balloon the bigger it gets. This balloon will keep growing until you make the decision to stop adding air to it and start letting some of the air out. Letting some of the air out is the key to breaking this vicious cycle and taking back control of your life.

What you avoid will continue to grow until you take back control and stop avoiding.

Please note, that generally speaking, refraining from avoidance behaviour is a best practice, however, sometimes avoidance is necessary. If you are being abused or harmed in any way, it is best to avoid the person. If there is a threat to your physical well-being and safety, you should avoid this threat. So although I am taking a strong stance on the harm avoidance can cause, there are also situations in which avoidance is necessary and the only safe option. Please use your judgement and make sure you are not putting yourself in harm’s way.

What does avoidance look like?

Avoidance can take many different forms. At times, we know exactly what we are doing. Other times, it’s not as straightforward. Sometimes we consciously do it and other times it’s an unconscious behaviour.

In order to be able to change our avoidance patterns, it is key to first be able to acknowledge that avoidance is going on. You may isolate yourself from friends and family. You may procrastinate. You may withdraw from commitments. You may choose not to go places that create anxiety. You may not address a topic that is upsetting or distressing. It does not matter what or how you avoid it. It will always be problematic. The key is knowing that you are doing it. Once you know you are avoiding something, you can start challenging this maladaptive coping mechanism. Knowing you are avoiding something is half the battle.

How do I break avoidance behaviour?

You may be wondering how exactly do you break the avoidance cycle!? It’s easy in theory: stop avoiding. But the reality is that it takes commitment and hard work. You have likely avoided stuff for a long time and it’s become an ingrained, go-to pattern of behaviour. You likely do it without much thought and it’s become second nature.

Breaking the cycle will first involve you making a conscious choice to STOP using avoidance as an anxiety reduction strategy. I often recommend that clients equip themselves with other anxiety-reducing skills they can use to replace their avoidance patterns. Such strategies may include grounding techniques, breathing strategies, mindfulness, or relaxation skills. The next step is to gradually approach the people, places, things, thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations that you have been avoiding in a systematic way.

You are going to want to gradually start breaking your avoidance pattern in a strategic way. In psychotherapy, using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), a tool that is helpful in systematically approaching what is being avoided is the Fear Ladder. This technique involves creating a list of situations that create anxiety, giving an anxiety rating to each of the items on the list (1 = very little anxiety, 100 = extreme anxiety), then ordering them from least anxiety-provoking to most anxiety-provoking. The goal will be to then start at the bottom and work your way up. You can stay on each stage as long as you need until you feel confident in your capacity to cope and move on to the next tier.

  1. STOP using avoidance as an anxiety reduction strategy.

  2. Find alternative anxiety-reducing skills, such as grounding techniques, breathing strategies, mindfulness, or relaxation skills.

  3. Gradually approach the people, places, things, thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations that you have been avoiding in a systematic way.

Putting the Fear Ladder to Use

For example, an individual avoids going to stores as they experience high levels of anxiety and discomfort. The bigger the store and the more people, the more overwhelming.

List of Situations that are avoided:

  1. Costco (100)

  2. Big Grocery store on the weekend (90)

  3. Big Grocery store at 8 pm on a weeknight (70)

  4. Privately owned small grocery store (60)

  5. Small boutique (50)

  6. Gas station (40)

In order to overcome avoidance, you first need to experience the anxiety that you have been trying to get away from. In such a scenario, the goal would be to start by going to the gas station and picking something up in the store there. Maybe grabbing a bag of chips or a pack of gum. You would want to do that several times and once you feel less distressed, you would move on to the next stage, which would be to visit a small local boutique. You would go to small boutiques until your anxiety has dissipated and then move on to the next stage.

Approaching the things that are being avoided is never an easy feat. Working through avoidance can be very difficult and I highly recommend connecting with a therapist who has the experience and can help you through this part of your recovery.

Call our clinic today at 613-877-4148 to connect with a Registered Psychotherapist who can help you learn how to avoid avoidance.

Taylor Jackson bio

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