Understanding the Cycle of Avoidance

Many individuals with anxiety disorders use avoidance as a way to cope. If we avoid things that cause anxiety, we decrease the likelihood of feeling anxious/uncomfortable. The problem with avoidance is that it temporarily feels good, but long-term can create bigger problems and make our world smaller and smaller.

We get immediate relief (called negative reinforcement) when we decide we aren’t going to do something that might cause us anxiety or discomfort. The problem is, we can’t avoid everything and eventually we may have to face what we are avoiding. It doesn’t just go away. In fact, we can create additional problems or bigger problems the more we avoid.

An example of the Cycle of Avoidance

The more we avoid conflict, the harder it is to stand up for ourselves or express our wants/needs/opinions. Over time, our wants/needs repeatedly don’t get met (multiple problems) and we can lose our sense of self which can lead to resentment, confusion, interpersonal issues, depression and shame (bigger problems).

Avoidance also teaches our brain that the thing we are avoiding is bad (because we feel anxious) and avoiding it is good (because we get relief), which actually gives the thing we are avoiding more power. It feels scarier and more difficult to approach the more we avoid it.

So what do we do about to overcome the Cycle of Avoidance?

Notice avoidance and the impact it has in your own life, set an intention to approach rather than avoid, start with easier things, approach as often as possible, and move to harder things.


*Note: avoidance is useful in factually dangerous situations. This is one way we protect ourselves and survive. Do not approach factually dangerous situations. Ask a therapist for help if needed.