Anxiety is scary. Panic attacks, in particular, are terrifying. As a sufferer of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I have often done all I can to avoid bringing on a panic attack.
Some of these methods, recommended by my therapist, have been extremely productive, and will be provided throughout this article.
However, I’ll admit that in the past I have also employed a number of counter-productive deterrence strategies, one of which is ‘avoidance.’
As people with anxiety, we oftentimes act in irrational ways. Deep-down, we know that ignoring our problems won’t make them go away, but we do it anyway. Why? Because anxiety is scary. We will instinctually avoid it if we can help it, despite the ramifications..
This blog post offers 5 techniques to avoid avoidance. That is, it aims to give advice on how to stop avoiding things because of anxiety. The good news is, it’s absolutely possible to unlearn this behaviour, and this article can help you get there.
What is Avoidance?
Emotional avoidance is a term which describes an individual’s tendency to avoid unpleasant situations in order to prevent the evocation of anxiety-related symptoms.
Avoidance tactics are closely related to a psychological term called anxiety sensitivity. In simple terms, anxiety sensitivity is the fear of anxiety. So, for some, avoidance becomes a defence mechanism utilised to suppress panic.
In fact, individuals who suffer from anxiety are more vulnerable to anxiety sensitivity. This is because they have already become intimately acquainted with anxiety and have thus developed emotional trauma.
However, avoidance actually tends to have the opposite effect than what we initially intend. Refusing to address something does not affect its prevalence. We can try to avert our gaze, cover our ears, demand it to go away – but it won’t. That’s why avoidance can trigger short-term euphoria and relief, but often exacerbates feelings of anxiety over time.
If you choose to avoid something due to anxiety, you are subconsciously making an agreement that said situation is dangerous. You are actively reinforcing irrational behaviour in exchange for instant gratification.
Ironically, this increase in anxiety, caused by engaging in avoidance techniques, can actually cause us to engage in avoidance techniques more often. This is something I refer to as the ‘Avoidance Cycle’.
The Avoidance Cycle
This cycle can be debilitating, even prohibiting you from being able to leave your home. The next section of this article provides you with 5 interventions you can make to break this cycle.
Make a List
Take a notebook and begin making a list of all the things you are currently avoiding, or alternatively, all the things you have avoided in the past 24-hours.
You might find that when you sit down to make your list, you may feel anxious initially. Just remind yourself that you are safe, and that those words cannot harm you.
In fact, I recommend doing this immediately after reading this article so that you don’t put it off and inevitably avoid doing it.
When we restrict negative thoughts to the space in our minds, we tend to perceive our problems as being more plentiful and frightening than they actually are.
We overthink them to the point of panic. Seeing your problems down on paper, in black and white, takes some of their power away.
The first step of unlearning avoidance is acknowledging that you have been engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms and identifying how often you rely on them.
Identifying specific triggers is a vital step in the healing process. Once you understand them, only then can you begin the work.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that deadlines trigger avoidance. Maybe it is situations in which you feel vulnerable. It could be that you often find yourself avoiding social situations Whatever pattern you find to be most frequent, begin by focusing on that.
Once you have identified your primary avoidance trigger, you need a plan to address it.
In the same notebook you have been using, make yourself a weekly to-do list of activities/tasks which have previously triggered your avoidant behaviour. Let’s take the example of deadlines. Pick one of your upcoming deadlines and schedule dedicated days to work on it. Or, if the deadline has passed or is impending, instead schedule a time to contact whoever set it.
Remember that progress isn’t linear. You might make mistakes along the way but stick with it and you’ll notice change.
Exposure Therapy is a term used to describe the act of purposefully participating in activities which trigger anxiety-related symptoms. So, for avoidance, you will use your schedule from the last section to gradually lean into tasks which you have previously neglected due to your anxiety.
For example, if you have been avoiding a certain location, you can begin by walking up to the entrance. If you have been avoiding talking to new people, start by simply making eye-contact and smiling. This can be unpleasant at first, but eventually you will become acclimatised to these situations and potentially eliminate them as avoidance triggers.
Of course, there are ways to make this transition more manageable, including;
Learning physiological self-soothing skills such as breathing exercises.
Cognitive-restructuring, which means challenging and disrupting your irrational and intrusive thoughts with reality-based observations.
Mindfulness exercises using mobile apps like Calm and Headspace
Grounding techniques which will help you to self-regulate emotions and avoid over-stimulation and disassociation.
Humans are social animals. We rely on each other for comfort and support.
I understand that it may feel like you must carry the weight of your anxiety and avoidant behaviour by yourself, but you don’t. Exposure therapy doesn’t have to be completed alone.
If you have somebody that you can trust, ask them to join you. Moreover, allow yourself to start trusting others to help. You don’t have to explain the entire situation if you are not comfortable doing so, instead, simply mention that the situation you are entering into makes you feel anxious.
Sharing this burden can be seriously relieving. Furthermore, if things don’t go to plan, you have someone there to help calm you down and potentially remove you from the situation.
However, be cautious of becoming dependant on this individual, eventually it is a good idea to engage in exposure therapy alone, but for the first couple of times, a sidekick can help.
How do you speak about yourself? What words do you use? Do you define yourself by your anxiety alone? It might be time to change up your vocabulary.
You are not broken; you are healing despite your trauma. You are not weak; you are strong despite your difficulties. You are not a coward; you are brave despite your fears. These are truths you should begin to internalise.
You need to believe you can stop being avoidant if you are ever to actually stop. I’m sure your anxiety is telling you to avoid trying, to give up. It might tell you that you can’t do it.
Don’t give up on yourself. Remind yourself daily that you are worthy of the adventures and opportunities that you have been passing up due to emotional avoidance. Because you are worthy, you deserve all of it.
Anxiety isn’t an innately negative emotion. All humans experience some anxiety as a response to perceived threats. It’s our brains way of keeping us alive.
This is something referred to as a ‘fight or flight’ signal. Fight the danger or flee. However, those of us that experience anxiety more often, more intensely, have brains which signal vulnerability in situations in which we are perfectly safe. We can choose ‘flight’, we can run from anxiety, avoiding anything which might trigger it, or we can choose to fight it. Fighting is certainly the bravest option, and truthfully, the most difficult, but the results can be magical.
Follow these 5 techniques, choose to fight avoidance, because you are worth fighting for.
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Disclaimer: Please note that all articles are not a substitute to visiting a mental health professional. All articles, videos and ebooks have a entertaining purpose only. Self-diagnosing anxiety or any other disorder can be extremely dangerous. We highly recommend seeing a professional if you feel overwhelmed or anxious.
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