Why avoidance doesn’t help anxiety

27 June 2024by crbwebsite0

Anxiety feels horrible. It can be mentally and physically all consuming. You may not want to show others your anxiety, so you desperately try to hide your feelings or shut them down. Brave face it – which can feel even worse. So an obvious solution would be to avoid situations that cause you to feel anxious. A very logical thought that understandably leads you to think ‘I will feel much better’. However, there are good reasons why avoidance doesn’t help anxiety and can make it worse.

What could make you anxious?

Anything. Literally, anything and what makes one person anxious may not be the same for anyone else. So it may be planes, heights, hospitals, bugs, social situations, driving, clutter [or add your own].

Driving on a mountain road with a tiny barrier like the photo above sets my teeth on edge!

Whatever the situation your brain and body read it as ‘danger’. Some of this makes sense like flying or being at height – they carry an element of understandable risk. But what if you experience anxiety when not being busy or being alone? You feel threatened and your body is getting you ready to run away, but the situation is an exam or a deadline.

Stressful? yes … life threatening no.

Smart but not wise

Consequently how you feel (anxious, sick, hot, sweaty, difficulty breathing etc) affects how your brain perceives the situation.

It can’t tell the difference between real danger (a bear is attacking me now) and imagined danger (what if a bear ever attacked me).  Bringing on the same emotional response. The brain can be smart but not wise. It cannot separate out ‘the truth’ as it all feels real. Therefore making it really understandable why you would want to avoid any situation that made you feel like this. So when you tell yourself ‘if I mess up this exam my life is over’ guess what – your brain believes it as real. You experience real stress. This is why telling anyone who is anxious to just ‘calm down’ is never going to help. They may ‘shut down’ to deal with the overwhelming stress but not ‘calm down’ which is a big difference.

Short relief

However, avoidance does not stop anxious feelings. It just kind of shifts them around. This is why avoidance doesn’t help anxiety. You may feel relieved not to go to a social gathering, or not drive somewhere you don’t know. But what happens when it comes up next time? There is a risk that as your fear grows your world becomes smaller as different situations are avoided, but ultimately the feelings are still there. Consequently becoming bigger and stronger the more a situation is avoided. Finally resulting in the avoidance also causing stress and anxiety with no relief being available.

This is one of those times when your coping method (which was set up to help you) is now not helping – its making it worse.

Bringing up feelings of shame, guilt, frustration, self loathing etc in addition to the anxiety.

Safety Behaviours

Alternatively you may have created ‘safety behaviours’ to help manage the anxious feelings.

These may include:

  • Always carrying a phone, or listening to music
  • Being with someone else most of the time
  • Only going to places you know
  • Over preparing & planning
  • Sitting at the end of aisles or near exits
  • Constantly seeking reassurance or asking others to make decisions for you

Similarly these safety behaviours can appear helpful in the short term, but they also keep the anxiety going. Yes you are functioning – but only under these conditions. If these conditions can’t be met, ( e.g. you can’t get a lift or someone can’t come with you) and that means you don’t end up doing something you would have liked – this can lead to feelings of worthlessness and negative thoughts.

It becomes personal

‘I’m pathetic’ or ‘what’s wrong with me, everyone else manages this’

Which continues the vicious cycle of feeling anxious, perceiving the world as threatening and not being able to cope.

Which feels awful.

And the end result? More avoidance or safety behaviours

Repeat, repeat, repeat – which is why avoidance doesn’t help anxiety. It just gives the situation the same ending

So what helps?

Find the situation that is the easiest to handle and start there.

Know that anxiety is a feeling that will pass.

Take deep breaths, roll your shoulders or move around to expel the physical feeling of needing to run. Acknowledge you feel anxious (to others if appropriate or just to yourself) but know that you can also do this.

Work your way up to more challenging tasks building up your confidence. Keep deep breathing to bring your anxiety levels down and doing things like sipping water or chewing gum also helps (this action tells the brain there can’t really be a bear about to attack because you have stopped to eat and drink – no one in danger would do this, its OK to begin to relax)

Don’t avoid the everyday things

By not avoiding a situation you are giving yourself the chance to learn you can cope.

Each time you face a challenge your anxiety will begin to reduce and the situation feel more tolerable and less threatening.

Your world can become bigger and less limiting when you have the courage to trust you will be OK

And I get it sounds so simple, don’t avoid what makes you anxious – but honestly it works.

Counselling can help you face your anxiety. You don’t have to do it alone.

About the author: Chris Boobier is the owner of CRB Counselling and an accredited counsellor.

Get in touch here if you’d like to explore how counselling could help you.

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