Avoidance behavior, or avoidance coping, is a way of trying to stay calm by trying not to pay attention to disturbing thoughts or feelings. Avoidance may work in the short run, but it also tends to take a short term problem and make it a long term one.
James Edgar Skye, a bipolar blogger we follow, has a blog post on avoidance that is worth reading. In it he talks about different types of avoidance, and how he works to control them… facing the causes of anxiety and overcoming them rather than hiding from them.
There are two types of avoidance: emotional avoidance strategies such as avoiding eye contact, attempting to control breathing, and procrastination; and cognitive avoidance strategies such as distraction, self-reassurance, and thought suppression.
He describes common “safety behaviors”, things that we do to try to protect ourselves from anxiety, for example carrying a cell phone with a breathing app, or a “good luck” charm, or taking a anxiety medication in our pocket.
The problem with these behaviors is that they can get in the way of actually learning how to cope with the cause of the anxiety.
Safety behaviors increase awareness of anxious thoughts and feelings… just carrying the good luck charm means that you will always be aware of the potential for anxiety in a situation.
They may reduce anxiety in the moment, but maintain a long term low level anxiety,
Certain coping behaviors may sometimes be helpful, for example exercise or meditation, but if you use the activity to keep from thinking about or facing important issues in life, this potentially healthy behaviour can become an unhealthy avoidance.
Avoidance often feels comforting at first, for example, if you are a shy person, you will feel more comfortable avoiding social situations. However, by avoiding the discomfort of socializing, you end up in a state of chronic, low level, constant fear of social situations.
If, instead of avoiding these situations altogether, you begin to take on smaller social challenges, you begin to unlearn the anxiety.
The antidote to avoidance is awareness. Ask yourself these questions…
- What situations, thoughts, or feelings do you try to avoid?
- What strategies of avoidance do you use?
- What are the costs and consequences of these avoidance strategies?
- What would be the cost or consequences of stopping the avoidance behavior?
- What would be the benefits?
- What steps can you take to move beyond avoidance, to face down your fears and anxieties?
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