Avoidant Behavior: Is It An Effective Coping Skill?

Alright Primers, here’s the deal; I haven’t posted in 3 months. Yes….3 months! As much as I wanted to avoid admitting to that fact, it is important for me to acknowledge it and own it. You see, I have a habit of avoidance. You all know that I practice what I preach, meaning the skills I teach I also apply in my own life because they are effective in creating a life worth living. So, I thought a post about avoidance would be appropriate here.

My initial goal was to post at the very least, every 2 weeks. When life got busy and my computer crashed, I was unable to post as frequently as I wanted to. Once that happened, the thought of posting was anxiety-inducing because I had failed to achieve my goal. And so started my 3 month journey of avoidance.

What is avoidance?

Avoidance is actually an urge associated with the feeling of anxiety or worry. It’s a behavior that we may not always be consciously be aware of. When something causes of anxiety or worry, we want to avoid it. It makes sense. Our mind wants to protect us from more or future emotional pain so we avoid situations, behaviors and people that may trigger those feelings.

Avoidance can be a healthy coping skill, but only within a certain threshold. If avoidance turns into procrastination, we have surpassed the healthy threshold. Procrastination is putting off something that is stressful or anxiety-inducing that ultimately needs to be addressed. Procrastination is problematic when you can no longer avoid. When you finally end up addressing the issue, your anxiety is higher than it would have been had you addressed it initially.

Can Some Things Be Successfully Avoided?

A lot of my patients ask me if there are some things that can effectively be avoided. Working with patients in recovery from addiction, I would recommend avoiding potential triggers as much as possible. Avoiding exposure to needles, bars, parties and people are examples of triggers that patients in recovery (especially early recovery) are strongly encouraged to do. However, it is not realistic to believe that avoiding is a long-term solution. Unavoidable circumstances may require a person to attend a party or go to a restaurant where alcohol will be served. In that instance, coping ahead and strengthening other coping skills are essential in effectively tolerating the anxiety.

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There are some things that I actively avoid. Getting the mail is a behavior I avoid because it causes me anxiety. Bills and paperwork are an anxiety trigger for me. The anxiety I experience, while valid to me, is not necessarily based on a factual threat. However, my way of managing my anxiety is to assign this task as part of my husband’s daily routine. Avoidance, in this example, works for me because I am not re-exposing myself to the trigger. That’s not to say that I don’t open the mail and address it, which I do. Also, I do get the mail on occasion, especially when I’m waiting for something I want or is important. The act of getting the mail causes me unexplainable anxiety.

I avoid that action of getting the mail; however the mail is still being addressed. If my husband was unable to get the mail, avoiding it would only increase my anxiety for obvious reasons (bills would pile up, more paperwork would accrue). This behavior of getting the mail cannot be avoided and if it were, my anxiety and my problems would increase. I have found a way to minimize my exposure to this anxiety trigger.

If you engage in avoidance behavior, try to:
• Remember that avoidance is a coping skill, however it is not always a healthy one. Avoidant behavior can cause anxious feelings to increase in frequency and severity.1
• Learn to tolerate uncomfortable, anxious feelings by remembering that they will pass.
• Remind yourself that experiencing emotions helps them pass and frees us up to experience positive emotions.
• Accept and recognize that anxiety is unavoidable; things happen in life that cause us worry and anxiety and we can’t avoid those feelings.
• Recognize that avoidance can increase our anxious feelings because it is not a long-term solution in most situations.
• Determine why you’re avoiding and if there’s something you can do to lessen your anxiety about the stimulus.
• Address the situation promptly so you don’t procrastinate and increase your anxiety when you do have to address it.
• Learn and practice alternative coping skills to help manage your anxious feelings.
• See if you can address the situation gradually, which may help you become desensitized to the stimulus.

Awareness is key in addressing avoidant behavior. If you find that avoidance is a behavior that has caused significant problems in your life, talking to a licensed therapist can help.

To read more about avoidance and coping, check out this article from Psychology Today here.

References:
Psychology Today. (2013). Why Avoidance Coping is the Most Important Factor in Anxiety.

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