Anxiety and Avoidance: The Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Anxiety and avoidance are best friends when it comes to keeping someone stuck. 

First, let’s talk about ANXIETY.

Anxiety lives in the body and the brain. For example, people who struggle with anxiety may notice physical symptoms such as upset stomach, muscle tension, feeling on edge, headaches, and shallow breathing. Additionally, the mind can be running a million miles an hour, planning for all scenarios or outcomes, and thinking in the future with “what ifs.” 

Second, what is AVOIDANCE?

Avoidance is often maladaptive when struggling with anxiety. Not only is avoidance unhelpful, but it also keeps you stuck. For example, the use of avoidance is helpful when you are unsure about whether a wild berry is poisonous. However, it is not helpful, and sometimes harmful, when procrastinating completing an assignment for work or school. 


The cycle of anxiety and avoidance is falsely reinforcing. Oftentimes, the brain interprets the outcome of avoidance as “successful” and therefore justifies it as a good solution. Unfortunately, the brain interprets an outcome as “successful” because the worst case scenario didn’t happen. But is this really success? Instead, avoidance will never let you reach for the best case scenario. 

The reality is that this pattern often causes a lot of distress that continues to build over time with little relief when actually avoiding. 

Finally, WHAT CAN BE DONE about the anxiety and avoidance cycle?

This is the hard part. It’s hard because you can’t always think your way out of anxiety. Typically, you must do things differently before the thoughts shift. Two skills are helpful in this process. 

First skill- opposite action. Opposite action is doing the opposite of the avoidance. For example, you want to avoid have a serious conversation with a coworker, so send an email to schedule a time to talk instead. Furthermore, make a small step that includes accountability to help you change the pattern like in the example above. 

Second skill- challenge negative thoughts. Giving anxiety thoughts airtime in your mind makes them more likely occur. When you notice a worry thought, challenge it! For example, you have a worry thought about this coworker getting mad at you for wanting to talk. The challenge thought examples would be that things will get worse if you don’t talk, you would want to know if the positions were reversed, a talk might actually bring you closer, and you deserve to use your voice. Once you’ve challenged the thought, shift your focus to other things. 

The anxiety and avoidance cycle is hard to break, but once you have momentum, you’ll see some positive changes in your life. It may feel like a leap of faith at first! But in the end, it is worth it.

Link to homepage www.couragepsych.com

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  1. Pingback: “Why?” and “What if…?”: The Anxious Mind Wants to Know - Cultivating Courage - Online Therapy in Scarsdale, NY

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