By Christina Smith, LMHC
We are all guilty of avoiding things that we don’t want to do from time to time. We may let laundry pile up, avoid confronting a friend over something they did that upset
It’s easy to avoid things, especially when there are so many things we would rather be doing with our time. But, for those experiencing more serious mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, avoidance can worsen symptoms of those issues.
What is avoidance behavior?
Avoidance is a maladaptive coping skill that offers the mind an escape from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and/or experiences. It may seem like avoiding discomfort could be helpful, however, it results in never addressing the actual issue. In fact, avoidance may create a cycle of behavior that exacerbates feelings of anxiety and depression, making it much harder to problem solve, cope, and heal.
For example, someone who feels depressed might find it hard to get out of bed in the morning and may avoid daily responsibilities that seem stressful. They might stay in bed until noon, miss breakfast, avoid paying bills, skip the gym, etc. When they do finally get up, they have lower energy and less time to take care of responsibilities. The lack of energy and time will most likely result in more negative thoughts and feelings. Then, they may engage in more avoidant behavior and ultimately perpetuate the cycle of depression.
Here are a few other examples of avoidance:
Someone might avoid triggers such as people, places, and things that may incite uncomfortable feelings. Those dealing with social anxiety, for example, might avoid crowds of people or
Another example might be someone experiencing relationship issues. Given that most of us do not enjoy conflict, it’s easy to find ways to avoid confronting an issue. Particularly when it comes to someone in our life that we care about. Individuals facing marital issues may divert attention from the issue by changing the subject when it comes up. Also, they may become passive aggressive toward their partner or even completely withdraw from them. This pattern of avoidance is sometimes referred to as ‘conflict avoidance‘. When an underlying issue is never addressed it can be buried under issues and become even more difficult to resolve.
Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.Brendon Burchard
It is also common for some people to avoid negative feelings by regularly engaging in “numbing” behaviors. This may come in the form of drinking more often or heavier, over-eating, over-exercising, etc; anything that might replace an uncomfortable feeling. It is important to note that these behaviors are only temporary fixes. It may keep the feelings out momentarily, but as soon as the numbing behavior stops, the feelings rush back, and solutions continue to evade our grasp.
The one thing we may want to avoid is avoidance itself. How to stop avoiding:
- Recognize and understand that you’re doing it. Become mindful of your behavior patterns and how you might be avoiding negative feelings or situations in your life. It can be useful to keep a journal, or a log of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to more easily identify such patterns.
- Practice effective stress relief. Learn relaxation skills such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga, journaling, art, etc. to combat stress. It’s important to find techniques that work for you. Exercising regularly and keeping a balanced diet can also help reduce stress.
- Remind yourself that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable and to have negative thoughts and feelings. They will pass. When we allow ourselves to feel our feelings we can finally start the process of healing.
- Get support. Family and friends are sometimes the best sources of support but it can also be helpful to find other sources such as a therapist or support group that can provide different perspectives.
Many times, ending the cycle of avoidance is a longer process than we may imagine. It might not be as simple as facing our fears and moving on.
Working with a therapist and taking small steps to learn about avoidance and how it is affecting you can be a positive step in overcoming issues like depression and anxiety.
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