When faced with an anxiety-provoking situation, it is tempting to want to avoid it. After all, if we avoid something that makes us anxious, then we won't have to endure that dreaded feeling of anxiety, right?
If you've stumbled across this post, you're probably familiar with the effects of avoidance.
Avoidance is like a bully, a bad influence in our lives telling us something is helpful, when in reality it's not. While avoidance does reduce our anxiety in the moment, it does nothing to reduce our long-term anxiety of the situation. In fact, the longer we avoid something, the worse our fear becomes.
Let's look at an example: Think about learning to drive. Let's say you're pretty anxious to get behind the wheel and pull out into traffic for the very first time. In response to this anxiety, you get out of the car and tell your instructor, "not today, I'm too anxious." The next day rolls around, and you begin to feel anxious again, so you say, "this is just a bad week. Let's wait until next Monday. I'll be ready by then." However, you go home and can't help but think about next Monday. Your heart starts to race, you may hear about accidents on the news, and your friend reminds you to be extra careful and safe on Monday. Monday rolls around, and as soon as you approach the car, your anxiety feels unbearable. So, what do you do? You avoid your driving lesson. Not just for this week, but for the following week, month, and before you know it, it's been 5 years!
The message: By avoiding getting in the car, it is true that your anxiety in the moment goes down, but what happens to your long-term anxiety and fear about driving? It actually increases!!
One of the reasons I particularly enjoy working with individuals with avoidance tendencies, is that once we work as a team to overcome them, a greater sense of freedom and independence is discovered. Through the process of saying goodbye to avoidance, clients learn valuable life skills that give them the confidence to get through any challenge and tough moment life brings, rather than relying on avoidance strategies to push their struggles under the rug.
So, what's the secret to overcoming avoidance?
Well, the first step is recognizing what avoidance has cost you. In other words, what brings you to want to overcome it? What's your motivation? What was the final straw that made you think, "I can't keep avoiding things anymore!"
Next, two essential components come into play:
1.) The Cognitive Component
This involves evaluating the thoughts we have about anxiety-provoking situations. Our thoughts are incredibly powerful, so we want to make sure they are truthful and rational, and not simply based on what our family, friends, or society wants us to think, or what we have erroneously learned over time. Remember, avoidance is like a bully. Are the messages of a bully always correct?
Growing up, we learn to perceive the world by the messages we see and hear from family, friends, books, TV, movies, and the media. Our belief system begins to form, which allows us to interpret situations around us, and guide our everyday decisions, plans, and actions. However, some beliefs we form are unintentionally skewed, leading us to interpret certain people, places, and things as fearful (and therefore must be avoided), when in reality, they're not.
So, how can we tell which thoughts/beliefs are skewed?
One of the many Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy strategies I use with my clients is called "gathering the evidence." In other words, we make a written list of all the evidence that a particular situation should be avoided, vs. all the evidence that perhaps it's okay to refrain from avoidance. By looking at the evidence and weighing both sides, we are able to evaluate the situation and form a rational, realistic conclusion. By restructuring our thoughts to make them more accurate, the intensity of our negative emotion decreases, allowing room for a more relaxing, confident feeling to enter.
2.) The Behavioral Component
This involves confronting what you avoid (gulp!). However, it is best to do this with a licensed therapist, who will work with you in gradual steps, especially with situations that you may have been avoiding for quite a long time (remember, the longer we avoid, the greater the fear!). After engaging in the cognitive component described above, it is important to prove to your mind that your avoided situations are not dangerous. It is not enough just to think they aren't.
Every individual is different, so it is important to work with a trusted professional to determine which gradual steps are most appropriate for you. If the steps are too easy, your mind is not learning valuable information to disprove your fear, but if the steps are too hard, your anxiety soars and the motivation to continue confronting avoided situations declines.
Whether you are ready to overcome your avoidance tendencies once and for all, or are still on the fence, know that help is available to make it happen.
DISCLAIMER: The blog posts shared on www.StacySmithCounseling.com contain the opinions of Stacy Smith, MS, LPC, and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations or affiliates. While Stacy is a licensed mental health professional, all blog posts on her site are for informational purposes only, and are never a substitute for professional advice catered to your individual needs. Stacy Smith is not liable for any diagnosis, treatment plans, or decisions made based on the information presented on this website. Furthermore, commenting on posts does not mean a treatment relationship has been established with Stacy Smith.