September 21, 2023

How to Recognize Avoidance and What to Do About It

Most of us have already heard about “fight-or-flight," a normal physiological response of the brain to help keep us away from danger. In the same vein, avoidance behaviours are also ways that the brain tries to protect someone from what it perceives as something dangerous.  

In this article, we aim to discuss everything about avoidance personality disorder, from recognizing the signs to knowing strategies on how to overcome it. 

What is Avoidance Behaviour? 

Avoidance is any action or behaviour exhibited by an individual to distract themselves or move away from a person, place, or situation that they are uncomfortable with. It’s a way for them to cope with anything that they perceive as stressful. It’s also a way for them to not engage with difficult thoughts or feelings. 

Experts classify different avoidance behaviours into five types, enumerated as follows: 

  • Situational Avoidance: This type of avoidance behaviour is the most common of all types and is typically exhibited in individuals suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s characterized by the individual’s attempt to physically avoid instances that may actively trigger them, such as crowded areas or wildlife. 
  • Cognitive Avoidance: This type of avoidance behaviour is characterized by the individual’s attempt to not think about things that might cause distress or displeasure. It’s a maladaptive way of distracting yourself, which includes dissociating and toxic positivity.  
  • Protective Avoidance: Protective avoidance includes actions or rituals that may make an individual feel safer, like keeping lucky charms and perfectionism. Procrastination may also be considered as an example of protective avoidance, which is a way of protecting oneself from the fear of doing the dreaded task or event. 
  • Somatic Avoidance: People who exhibit somatic avoidance tend to avoid situations that may trigger stress responses or any other somatic, physiological response. These situations include falling in love and riding roller coasters and other thrill rides. 
  • Substitution Avoidance: Substitution avoidance is an individual’s attempt to replace unwanted feelings and emotions with something they deem more acceptable. Examples of this avoidance behaviour include exchanging grief with anger or turning to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain. 

The Link Between Anxiety and Avoidance Behaviour 

Anxiety and avoidance are connected as they feed off from and amplify each other. Short-term relief from anxiety motivates the individual to continue the avoidance behaviour, but anxiety symptoms only worsen over time because of avoidance.  

The situation described above is what experts call The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety or the Anxiety-Avoidance Cycle. It features four cyclic steps, enumerated as follows: 

  • Triggering of Anxiety: The first step in this cycle is a situation that triggers the individual’s anxiety, like news or any unwanted interactions. It may also be exhibited by the individual worrying about a potential threat, such as a future event that they think will end up negatively. 
  • The Avoidance Behaviour: Following anxiety, the individual will do everything to avoid their trigger, like making up an excuse or asking someone to replace you. 
  • Anxiety is Relieved (Short-Term): Through the avoidance behaviour, the anxiety may be eased up temporarily, resulting in the individual’s overly reliance on this strategy.  
  • Anxiety is Exacerbated (Long-Term): Relief that results from avoidance behaviour becomes more and more short-lived. Through time, the individual may believe that the avoidance behaviour is the only thing that can solve their triggers. The anxiety symptoms may also persist and worsen. 
Avoidance Behaviour

Recognizing the Signs of Avoidance Behaviour 

Avoidance behaviour is a maladaptive way that some individuals deal with things they think will cause them displeasure or discomfort. They may come in different forms, some examples of which are as follows: 

  • Escapism: Escapism is one’s attempt to distract oneself from realities that they may find unpleasant by turning into a fantasy world, such as from books and video games. Unhealthy escapism, such as when it compromises your relationships with family and friends and hinders your ability to do work, is classified as a type of avoidance behaviour. 
  • Wishful Thinking: Wishful thinking is a pathologic way of thinking positively, in the sense that the person who does this may fall prey to delusions and pray for a positive outcome while not doing anything to achieve it.  
  • Self-Isolation: Someone who succumbs to self-isolation tends to avoid social events altogether in an effort to avoid stress and anxiety. 
  • Excessive Emotional Restraint: Burying down emotions is an unhealthy coping mechanism for someone who doesn’t want to deal with their feelings and emotions. This may lead to unhealthy ways in which their emotions may manifest, like extreme feelings of discomfort, even over minor things. 
  • Substance Abuse: For some individuals, they try to numb pain and escape reality by being dependent on drugs or alcohol, ultimately leading to addiction. 

Other examples of avoidance behaviour include not meeting the eyes of those you’re talking to, last-minute cancellations of plans, and not answering calls or texts to avoid confrontation. 

Overcoming Avoidance Behaviour 

The first step in overcoming avoidance behaviour is acknowledging that you may be exhibiting it, which will in turn help you have the firm resolve to change.  

Building healthier coping mechanisms also helps, which may be achieved through different activities that can provide you with a more positive outlook. These activities include the following: 

  • Journaling: Writing down our negative emotions and reading them out loud can help us sort our emotions and process them differently. Through journaling, we may understand the patterns of our negative emotions and work toward changing them and healing. 
  • Exercising: Exercising and other physical activities help release endorphins and other “feel-good” hormones that can help you feel more positive throughout the day. 
  • Yoga and Meditation: Yoga and meditation are said to be good ways to refocus and alleviate feelings of anxiety and stress. 

You may also ask someone, such as a trusted friend, to keep you in check when faced with a difficult situation and encourage you not to exhibit your avoidance behaviour. 

Finally, you may also try to make yourself face your problems rather than running away from them. This may be achieved by trying to be more assertive, in the sense that you confront the problem and discuss it more openly with the person concerned, and by trying to be more tolerant of uncomfortable feelings. 

How Therapy Helps 

Sometimes, it’s not enough that we face our mental health issues alone, especially when it’s interfering with our daily lives. This is where mental health professionals can come in and guide you. Here are some of the ways that mental health professionals can help you to more effectively overcome avoidance behaviour: 

  • Determine the root cause of your maladaptive behaviour; 
  • More openly and productively express your emotions in a non-judgmental way; 
  • Provide a starting point and strategies to change patterns of your avoidance behaviour; and 
  • Help keep track of your progress. 

Comprehensive Treatment Strategies at Archways Centre for CBT 

Avoidance behaviour is an unhealthy coping mechanism typically characterized by escapism, self-isolation, and substance abuse. It’s often linked and considered as one of the symptoms of other mental health conditions like anxiety. Recognizing avoidance behaviour entails being honest with yourself and actively seeking ways to overcome it. 

At Archways Centre for CBT, our team of qualified therapists is committed to providing high-quality care for our patients seeking help with their mental health issues. Our services are grounded in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, an effective and evidence-based way of managing one’s thoughts and emotions. Contact us here to learn more and start your recovery process with us. 

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