What is avoidance behaviour?
Avoidance behaviour is anything you do or don’t do with the main goal of avoiding or escaping an unpleasant emotion, thought or consequence. This can include behaviours, such as the avoidance of specific places, people, situations, and also cognitive actions, such as trying not to think of a problem or ruminating about the difficulty to find a solution.
The key to avoidance behaviour is the intention of escaping from feeling uncomfortable and not so much the behaviour itself. It can become very subtle and difficult to recognize, but even a neutral or pleasant activity, such as listening to music can become a behaviour performed as a form of escaping from something unpleasant. For example, if you listen to music to distract yourself from worrying thoughts.
Avoiding or escaping unpleasant emotions or thoughts is the nature of the brain, and we all do it. However, paradoxically, these efforts to escape often heighten and perpetuate the suffering. If left alone, the painful emotions come and go on their own, it is when we try to control them or get rid of them that they stay longer. The mere act of doing something about an emotion or thought keeps us focused on that same emotion or thought, which prevents them from going when they are ready to go.
As a result, avoidance behaviour can become a symptom of many mental issues and usually works to perpetuate the disorder. As an example, avoidance can impact the course of the following issues and many more:
- Social anxiety
- Generalised anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Avoidant attachment
Examples of avoidant behaviour
Avoidance behaviours can take any form, from drug and alcohol abuse, to binge eating, or other more subtle forms, such as ruminating. Here we have some examples of behaviours people might use to avoid an unpleasant emotion, thought or event.
- Avoiding situations (e.g., dentist, parties, etc.)
- Leaving situations when you start feeling unease
- Avoiding certain people
- Avoiding certain places (e.g., the beach)
- Avoid dating
- Avoiding activities (e.g., making excuses not to go to a social event)
- Trying to suppress thoughts, not to think about something that is making you upset
- Trying to suppress emotions
- Trying to suppress symptoms
- Asking for reassurance
- Searching on the internet to find reassurance (e.g., looking for information that confirms or disconfirms your thoughts)
- Engaging in compulsions and rituals (e.g., washing your hands, counting, etc.)
- Reading self-help, spiritual or religious material to feel better about a situation or problem
- Eating to feel better
- Using alcohol or other substances
- Wishful thinking and maladaptive daydreaming
- Procrastinating (e.g., cleaning your desk instead of doing homework)
- Avoid looking in the mirror (if you are concerned about your looks)
- Telling myself that everything will be okay
- Trying to rationalize the anxiety, looking for reasons why your worries are unrealistic
- Trying to distract yourself from a thought or feeling (watching TV, thinking about something else, keeping yourself busy, etc.)
- Trying to think positive thoughts
- Praying, meditating, or using affirmations
- Telling yourself to stop thinking like this
- Trying to physically relax (e.g., progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, etc.)
- Being self-critical
- Ruminating about a problem, going over the past or future once and again
These are only some examples, but anything can become a tool used to escape, including activities that seem to be helpful, such as exercising, which can become a form of reducing the anxiety of someone with bulimia that binged eaten. Hence, it is not the behaviour itself that determines how helpful or unhelpful the action is, but the intention behind, it and the frequency and intensity of this behaviour.
For example, exercising to be healthy is positive, and exercising for one or few days to compensate for a big meal is not a problem. However, overexercising several days a week to compensate for binge eating (or what is the same, avoid the anxiety or shame caused by the binge) can become a problem that perpetuates a bigger issue.
Safety behaviours as a form of avoidance
Safety behaviours are another form of avoidance that is also very common. In this case, instead of escaping the problematic emotion, thought or situation, the person does something that helps them to reduce the distress in a given stressful context.
- For instance, some people with panic disorder might always take a bottle of water with them, as they fear the sensation of dry mouth and having water with them gives them a sense of reassurance.
- People with body image concerns might use loose clothes to hide their shape, which prevents them from feeling the distress that otherwise showing their body would cause.
- Social anxious people might only go to social events if someone they know goes with them, as this person can help them to feel more relaxed and less on edge in this context.
Consequences of avoidance behaviour
The major consequence of avoidance is that issues, emotions, or thoughts are perpetuated and possibly intensified in time. In the short term, all these behaviours can work in reducing distress, but in the long term, the fear is reinforced and maintained.
Because distress is reduced short-term, avoidance gives a mistaken sense of control, of being able to reduce distress by performing these actions. Contrary to this perceived sense of control, avoiding a feared outcome (whether that is a feeling, thought, or event), reinforces the idea that the outcome is something extremely dangerous that should be avoided. Failing to confront the feared consequences prevents the person from testing that the outcome doesn’t happen, or if it happens, the individual can cope with it.
As such, avoidance perpetuates fear and intensifies the idea that if this emotion, thought, or outcome happens, the person won’t be able to cope. Hence, the next time that the fear is triggered, the level of fear is even higher, and the need to avoid it is stronger, becoming a circle of distress and avoidance more difficult to break.
Avoidance can also have more day-to-day consequences. For instance:
- You might lose job opportunities if you avoid attending job interviews.
- Your relationships might be impacted if you avoid having difficult conversations.
- It might take you time and money to commute to work if you avoid driving.
- Your academic performance might be negatively affected if you procrastinate and try to postpone working on that essay.
How to overcome avoidance behaviour?
As with any issue impacting mental health, there is not a unique and straightforward answer to how to overcome it. In the case of avoidance, the solution is to stop avoiding whatever you are avoiding, but this can be very difficult.
A therapist can help you to become aware of your avoidance behaviours, including those you are not aware of, and make a collaborative plan to work through those that are affecting your life. The plan has to be tailored to the person and their circumstances. While we suggest that, if you feel you need to, seek professional help whenever possible, here we are including some other tools that might be helpful:
The first step to overcoming avoidance is to realise when we are avoiding. Sometimes these behaviours go unnoticed, as they are a habit, and they can be difficult to spot. A good way to bring them to awareness is to write down what behaviours you do after a distressing emotion. Notice when your mood changes, or when you notice an unpleasant emotion and watch out for any behaviour that follows. Maybe you are trying to suppress the feeling, numb it with food or substances, or seek internet ways to cope with difficult emotions. Write down everything you do for a few days, you might even see a pattern.
When things become difficult we tend to say no to our present experiences. What is more helpful is to open up to whatever is happening here. Try saying yes to whatever comes your way. You can say yes to the anxiety, shame, or sadness, as well as to any negative thought, or problem you might have. Sense how your body and mind react to the words yes, in contrast to closing down.
Tara Brach has a whole talk about saying yes. We recommend you watch it to better understand what saying yes means.
Remember times when you experienced the same feared outcome
Remind you of past examples where you went through the same emotion, unpleasant thoughts, or difficult situations. There is no better way to show the mind that you can cope than thinking of examples of times when you coped with difficult problems.
Exposure to one’s fears can be overwhelming, but if done gradually, starting with mild fears can be more manageable. Start by creating a list of avoided situations and start exposing yourself to those that feel challenging but manageable. Here you have a guide to behavioural experiments, for more information about how to face your fears step by step.
Breathing can calm down your nervous system and stabilise your body and physical sensations. Since body and mind are connected, calming one’s body can be the first step towards tackling avoidance. From a space of relaxation is easier to cope with difficult emotions and take action in a way that challenges avoidance. Here you can read about five different breathing techniques.
Cognitive defusion techniques
Some tools used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can be helpful assets to deal with difficult emotions and thoughts, learning to live with them, rather than running away. In this other article about cognitive defusion techniques, we talk about some of these methods.
- Emotion regulation systems: the three circles model of Paul Gilbert
- 10 cognitive distortions: what are the most common thinking errors?
- Problem-solving methodology: the solution focus approach
- Core beliefs, attitudes, rules and assumptions in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)
- CBT techniques: tools for cognitive behavioural therapy