The phone rings, and it’s the bank. You feel an instant rush of anxiety and decide to ignore the call. Relief washes over you.
You had plans to hang out with an old friend- a week ago, you were excited. The day gets closer, and you’re starting to dread it, wishing you could just stay in. You text them the day of and tell them you aren’t feeling well, and you immediately take a deep breath and feel so much better.
Performance evaluations are coming up, and your boss is emailing you to set it up. You are ignoring the emails.
Avoidance. A much bigger deal than we can really cover in one blog post, as it’s pinpointed as the culprit in so many mental health concerns. It’s thought to be the major mechanism that perpetuates PTSD, phobias, social anxiety, and other anxiety-driven illnesses. I’m ignoring a lot of complexity here for the sake of education, but avoidance is really a nasty little thing.
A few things happen when you’re avoiding something that brings you anxiety.
  1. Avoidance reinforces avoidance. That relief I talked about earlier? That’s a brilliant reinforcer. In psychology, reinforcement tends to make a behavior continue. Just like you give your dog a treat when she sits or pay your kids their allowance when they do their chores, that relief that accompanies avoidance acts as a reward for avoiding. So not only did you not do the thing, you feel GREAT about not doing the thing. You think, “I feel so good because avoiding the thing was the right thing to do.” (PS: This is called emotional reasoning; we’ll cover this in a future post.) Maybe you don’t even feel relieved anymore. Well, the absence of that immediate anxiety is just as reinforcing (we call it a negative reinforcer: negative = absence of something, reinforcer = makes behavior increase).

    The problem with that beautiful relief, though, is that it is fleeting. The chronic pain of avoiding is much worse than the acute pain of doing the thing. Notice neither is painless! I’m not trying to convince you that “if you do the thing, it won’t be as bad as you thought.” It might be just as bad as you thought! The problem, of course, is that it will always be what it is, whether you do it now or after avoiding it, and by avoiding it, you subject yourself to both the acute and the chronic pain.

    One way to think about this is as pain versus suffering. Every human experiences pain. That’s life. That’s how you know that you are alive. However, we do bring suffering (or the chronic pain referred to above) to ourselves by spending time trying to avoid inevitable proof-of-life pain. That’s something we can work on.
  2. Avoiding the thing makes the thing scarier. Above, I said that doing the thing might be just as bad as you thought. That’s not entirely true. As you continue to avoid things that are stressful, those things become behemoths of pain and fear in your mind. Let’s say I’m scared of roller coasters, so I avoid them. I don’t like to look at them; I don’t want to talk about them; and I certainly won’t ride one. Maybe one time I even get strapped in, only to feel a fear so overwhelming that I make them let me out, bringing instant relief that I interpret as me making the right decision. Each time I do this - feel the beginning of fear only to avoid and shut it down - I become less aware of the actual magnitude of the thing. “If I am this scared, there must be a REALLY good reason.” If I had stayed on, I would learn that fear and anxiety are not infinite. There is a natural curve, where fear increases to a certain point, and then necessarily crests right on back down. If I never feel that natural decrease in fear, I never know that it is possible. Avoiding the thing means that I always artificially cut off my fear before it can peak, so I start to believe it never will.

    Now, the roller coaster isn’t a great example, because it doesn’t really change my life one way or the other if I don’t ride roller coasters. But what if we’re talking about things that really do have an impact on our lives? Calls from the bank, maintaining friendships, success at work? And that brings me to my last point.
  3. The life impact of avoidance is huge. Avoidance has a real, long-lasting impact on your life. From avoiding your morning run to avoiding a dinner date with a friend to avoiding looking for a job, every little instance of avoidance builds up and convinces you that it was the right decision. Before you know it, you’ve lost that friend, or you’re in debt, or you simply don’t like or know who you are anymore. Building a life around instant reinforcement rather than values that you hold dear is a very rocky choice. That’s an unstable foundation.
The flip side there is that it’s not impossible to come back from. Just as the tiny avoidances build up, so can the tiny engagements. If the dinner date feels like too much, ask to chat by phone instead. You can have a fake reason to get off at a certain time! If the run is too much, walk. Some things are things you just have to do, like meeting with your boss. There are ways to manage your anxiety about those things and realize the presence of anxiety is not evidence that the thing you are doing is wrong. If this is a little close to home for you, reach out to us. We can talk about ways to reduce avoidance and increase engagement.
Jessica Combs Rohr, PhD, is a staff psychologist at Menninger.