Avoidance refers to specific behaviors that people use to ensure they’re not involved in a specific situation, or that they can leave a situation they’ve already entered. These behaviors also refer to individuals who actively avoid difficult feelings. Avoidance behaviors can be a sign of underlying mental health issues.
What Is Avoidance Behavior?
Avoidance behaviors are any behaviors people use to escape or distract themselves from difficult thoughts, feelings, and situations. This can look like avoiding new job opportunities, career advancements, relationships, social situations, recreational activities, and family get-togethers. People use avoidance as a natural coping mechanism for pain, trauma, and other mental health issues.
It can be understandable to avoid dangerous situations or avoid peer pressure, but avoidance is more than just not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Avoiding something can make you feel in control; however, depending on what you are avoiding, it doesn’t always signify true control. Long-term, these behaviors can exacerbate other issues going on in your life.
Avoidant behavior can be a symptom of mental health issues like:
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Avoidant personality disorder
- Avoidant attachment
- Abandonment issues
- Toxic shame
- Toxic relationships
- Disorganized attachment
13 Examples of Avoidance Behavior
Avoidance behaviors can present in several different ways, including escapism, drug and alcohol use, day-dreaming, and burying your emotions.
Here is a list of avoidance behaviors:
- Drug and alcohol misuse
- Wishful thinking and maladaptive daydreaming
- Burying emotions instead of processing them
- Avoiding eye contact
- Lowering the voice when speaking
- Leaving gatherings early
- Making up excuses to avoid attending a social gathering
- Chronic procrastination
- Canceling plans last minute
- Not answering calls or texts
- Avoiding certain places at certain times
Are You Using Avoidance Behaviors?
Detecting avoidance behaviors requires you to be very open and honest with yourself. To help the process, consider asking yourself questions like:
- Why am I avoiding this?
- How long do I plan to avoid?
- When was the last time I completed the behavior instead of avoiding it?
- How does my avoidance make me feel?
- How does my avoidance impact others?
- Whose idea is it for me to avoid this?
Types of Avoidant Behaviors
You could avoid an endless list of behaviors, but most of them fit into a few distinct themes. The categories of avoidant behaviors are:
1. Situational Avoidance
Situational avoidance refers to avoiding being in a specific situation or even putting yourself at risk of being in the situation. Situational avoidance could involve a specific location, a certain person, or particular scenario that makes you uncomfortable. These situations could become avoided because of past experiences or the fear of future problems. This might be avoiding the dentist or avoiding the coffee shop you know is frequented by your ex.
2. Cognitive Avoidance
Cognitive avoidance is a mental process where you work to avoid thinking about something. This level of avoidance can be intentional or unintentional as your brain may take over the process and move avoidance to the unconscious. This process could leave your mind blank or full of fantasies and positive thoughts that distract from the thought you’re trying to avoid.
3. Protective Avoidance
During protective avoidance, you go out of your way to engage in behaviors that offer the perception of safety. This type of avoidance is based on the idea that if you can modify your environment with enough safety, there will be nothing to worry about. These behaviors could be linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and involve:
- Using “good luck” charms
4. Somatic Avoidance
Stress and anxiety produce a physical response in your body, and somatic avoidance aims to limit those physical responses. Of course, no one wants to feel anxious, but this level of avoidance restricts you from doing any fun, exciting, or adventurous activities that may create the same feeling. You may choose to avoid exercising, thrill rides, or watching scary movies.
5. Substitution Avoidance
When confronted with uncomfortable thoughts or situations, you could use substitutional avoidance. Doing so conceals your experience with something you deem to be better. This process could involve using substances to reduce anxiety or using anger as an emotion preferable to sadness or worry.
The Anxiety & Avoidance Cycle
With anxiety symptoms, exposure is a widely used treatment. Mental health professionals have learned that being exposed to and experiencing a stressful environment increases short-term anxiety but decreases anxiety in the long-term. Similarly, avoidance decreases short-term anxiety and increases long-term anxiety. The more a trigger is avoided, the greater the anxiety becomes.
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Impacts of Avoidance Behavior
When you try to prevent stress instead of allowing yourself to feel the emotions that come up for you, you give yourself a false sense of control. In reality, you hand over control to the thing you are trying to avoid, which does more long-term harm than good, even if it feels better in that moment. This can become a cycle that’s hard to break, leaving you more anxious, triggered, or even depressed.
Avoidance behaviors can also wreak havoc on your day-to-day life, forcing you to engage in other negative or maladaptive behaviors.
Impacts of avoidance behaviors could include:1
- If you’re avoiding a route in your car, it may make you late or cause you to spend more money
- Anxiety-related avoidance may make you lose professional opportunities
- If you’re avoiding certain feelings or conversations, it could hurt your personal relationships
7 Ways to Overcome Avoidance Behavior
Here are seven strategies for overcoming avoidance behaviors:
Journaling for mental health can get the negative feelings out of your head and onto the page. Sometimes, when we write down our feelings and read them aloud, it helps us process differently. This can help us identify negative thought patterns and explore where they come from and why. Once we’re able to sort through some of that, we can start to do the work to heal.
2. Utilize Stress Management Techniques
Stress management techniques can help people manage and move on from avoidance behaviors. Given that stress can sometimes mask itself as anxiety or depression, identifying the root cause of an issue or feeling is the first step towards recovery. Stress management provides many ways to deal with stress, no matter its cause, instead of avoiding the issues.2
3. Replace Your Negative Self Talk
If you tell yourself a trigger is too powerful or too negative, it will feel that way. Work to control your feelings by replacing your negative self-talk with more positive and hopeful affirmations.
4. Build Your Flexibility & Tolerance
You may feel like situations must go a specific way to be acceptable. This intolerance and inflexibility may keep you anxious. Instead, allow yourself to embrace and appreciate the unexpected.
5. Remember That Bad Experiences Can Help You Grow
Anxiety can make you feel like bad experiences are the end of the world. In reality, these situations present unique challenges that help you learn more about yourself and what you’re capable of.
6. Develop Coping Skills
It’s important to develop healthy, positive coping strategies. Think about your day-to-day routine and imagine what a life without avoidance would look like. Ask yourself this: How do I feel? Can I get past this feeling? Could this have been prevented? Is there something I can do to fix this now? These questions will allow you to tap into your emotion-focused and problem-focused coping mechanisms.
7. Seek Professional Help
If you’re avoiding situations or people and not really able to cope well or consistently, seek the help of a therapist. Due to the complex nature of how avoidance behaviors impact and trigger other mental health issues, it’s safer to find help at the first sign of struggle and get support right away.3
When & How Can Therapy Help With Avoidant Behavior
If your avoidance behaviors are getting in the way of you living a full life, it may be time to consider therapy. All licensed therapists are equipped to help people with avoidance behaviors and feelings, but having a strong therapeutic relationship is more important than the specific type of therapy they provide. Consider family therapy or couples therapy if the avoidance is impacting your relationships.
Once you have found a therapist, the two of you will create a treatment plan that could involve other types of therapy, such as group therapy. Depending on the underlying issues, marital or family therapy may also be recommended after a few sessions. It’s important to go in with an open mind and strive to address the underlying reason why you feel a need to engage in avoidance behaviors.
If you’re ready to find a therapist, start your search in an online therapist directory.
Avoidance behavior is difficult to overcome, but there are healthy ways to move forward. It’s important to remember that you can live a full life without needing to avoid situations or people. It’s never too late to help yourself and take the first step by talking to a professional counselor or therapist.