We all experience anxiety from time to time. When we become aware of danger, the anxiety we experience helps us to take action so that we stay safe. Those elevated stress levels we experience when we are anxious in a potentially dangerous situation, such as merging into traffic on a busy highway, help us to be more alert and to react more quickly. One might think that if we avoid situations that make us anxious, we would be more relaxed, but the opposite is true. Avoidance actually makes us more anxious.
Why avoidance behaviors make anxiety worse
The chemical changes that happen in our brain when we experience anxiety can be powerful – in limited doses. Not only do we become more alert and react more quickly, we are more likely to push ourselves to meet a deadline or win a race.
But anxiety that persists over long periods, interferes with our lives and our ability to function and can become debilitating. Adopting avoidance tactics to evade anxiety-inducing situations unintentionally strengthens the belief that such situations are perilous or unsafe. This avoidance pattern creates a destructive cycle where increased avoidance leads to heightened anxiety when encountering the situation again.
The anxiety avoidance cycle becomes more intense over time
Some examples of anxiety avoidance behaviors are:
- Procrastination: Avoiding tasks or responsibilities that trigger anxiety by putting them off or delaying them indefinitely.
- Social Withdrawal: Avoiding social situations or gatherings to escape potential feelings of discomfort, embarrassment, or judgment.
- Perfectionism: Over-focusing on details and obsessively trying to achieve flawlessness to avoid feelings of failure or criticism.
- Avoidance of Triggers: Avoiding specific places, people, or situations that are associated with anxiety-provoking experiences.
- Overplanning and Overpreparing: Engaging in excessive planning and preparation to minimize uncertainty and potential anxiety in upcoming events or activities.
Unfortunately, the short-term relief provided by avoidance behaviors comes at a cost: it increases anxiety by training your mind that there’s always danger lurking around the corner and that any situation could be potentially dangerous. You begin avoiding more and more activities in order to avoid the possibility of encountering a triggering situation.
The increasing intensity and duration of an anxious state leads to isolation from relationships, negatively impacts your physical health, is associated with depression, and can trap you into a downward spiral of complex emotions and dangerous behaviors.
It can be difficult to break the cycle, but it is possible
The first step is to take an honest look at how anxiety avoidance plays out in your own life. What avoidance behaviors have you adopted?
The second step is to evaluate how these avoidance behaviors are affecting your life. Have your relationships, physical health, or work suffered as a result? Understanding the true impact of these behaviors will give you the courage to break the cycle.
The third step is to confront your avoidance behaviors. An important evidence-based approach is exposure therapy. By experiencing a gradual exposure to anxiety-provoking situations your mind can learn (or relearn) that the situation need not be avoided. Recent research has shown that Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) can also be effective. This might be used, for example, to create a virtual reality experience of flying on an airplane for an individual with a fear of air travel.
At Trinity Counseling and Consulting, our therapists understand anxiety and avoidance behaviors and can help you develop effective coping strategies to manage anxiety. Reach out today to take the first step.