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End Your Anxious Avoidance with These Tips

August 4, 2019 George Abitante

Much of our lives are governed by habit, and sometimes the habit of anxious avoidance. What we do when we wake up, when we go to work, how we work, what we eat, even who we spend time with. We learn these habits in part because we identify actions that make us feel good and then repeat them. Habits are also formed because of the negative outcomes we associate with actions, and anxiety is just about the best habit creator we have.

Anxiety provides intense, immediate feedback about anything you can think of, providing you with information about what threats you may need to watch out for in your environment. Unfortunately, this excellent defense mechanism can be thrown out of whack and generate warnings about threats that inhibit our ability to live rewarding and joyful lives. This can become anxious avoidance, but there are things you can do to correct it.

The Habit of Anxious Avoidance 

It isn't always clear when we start to avoid something out of anxiety, but once we notice, it becomes evident very quickly that there is a pattern. In my case, when I have work that is very important to me and difficult, that is when my avoidant thinking jumps into high gear. Work that is both important and difficult throws me for a loop and makes me think about ways it could go wrong or not be completed at all. Those negative thoughts and feelings then lead me to disengage from the work and look for something to make me feel better when just doing the work is the real solution to those thoughts and feelings.

This is a case where my body has gotten the story completely wrong and has created unnecessary anxious avoidance. It seems like my body noticed I had associated this work with several negative thoughts and feelings, so it jumped in and tried to put as much space between myself and that work as possible. Now, my body is very effective at protecting me when I encounter a dangerous snake or bear because avoiding that threat is exactly what I need to do. However, for something like work where the negative thought is actually a hypothetical, not a "real" threat, my body does a poor job of helping me adapt. This is a great example of how our bodies don't distinguish between immediate threats and hypothetical or long-term threats -- whatever our minds create, our bodies will react to. 

How do we help ourselves learn to stop anxious avoidance and to start engaging with the things we are worried about? Here are three tips that can help. 

Correct Your Course of Anxious Avoidance

  1. Thank your body. This tip probably sounds silly, but I've found it extremely helpful. When you feel anxious, it's easy to get caught up in what your body is telling you and just go along for the ride. Unfortunately, that rarely helps you adapt. Instead, when I feel anxious about something I need to engage with, I start by thanking my body for working so hard to protect me. By saying thank you instead of getting more anxious, I slow down the flow of anxiety.
  2. Treat anxiety like an old friend. This is similar to the above point but slightly different. In the same way that we want to be grateful to our bodies for trying to protect us, we also want to acknowledge the limitations of our anxiety. If you treat your anxiety like a friend who wants the best for you but doesn't know very much about the world, you will start to engage with it in a healthier, positive way. Your anxiety is always trying to help, but it just doesn't know enough about the world or you to do it well. When we think of anxiety as a friend, it becomes clear that it is fallible. Acknowledging that your anxiety can be wrong is difficult when it feels like an outside force imposing itself on you, but once you treat it as a friend, that narrative can be broken down. 
  3. Engage in batches. In order to learn that something doesn't need to be avoided, it's important that we continue to engage with it but in a way that feels good overall. In the case of my work, continuing to work and checking in every minute or two can help me notice that even though I wanted to avoid that work I don't actually feel bad while doing it. This helps me learn that my desire to avoid is not necessary and that I can safely engage with my work. 

Engaging with something that produces anxiety is a significant challenge, but the tips above can help you change your thinking and stop the anxious avoidance. 

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, August 4). End Your Anxious Avoidance with These Tips, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/8/end-your-anxious-avoidance-with-these-tips



Author: George Abitante

George is a Master's Student in Clinical Psychology at Northwestern University and is focused on improving the efficacy and accessibility of treatments for depression and anxiety. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

Lizanne Corbit
says:
August, 4 2019 at 7:39 pm
I think looking at avoidance as habitual is absolutely brilliant, and probably quite eye-opening for many of us. There are always patterns to the things we avoid and the way we avoid them. I love your course corrections. I think the idea of treating your anxiety like an "old friend" holds such sweetness and something we can all make a clear connection to. Your suggestion for doing it in batches, so that it's managing and not overwhelming, is wonderful.
August, 5 2019 at 9:04 am
Hi Lizanne,

Thanks for yet another kind and thoughtful comment! I think your focus on making corrections and "doing it in batches" adds valuable emphasis to the importance of transforming these seemingly enormous changes into manageable steps that we can all take. Hope you are well,

George

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