Do you struggle with anxiety, particularly avoidance? For example, do you avoid going to parties or answering the phone due to your anxiety? Do you avoid opportunities even when you desire them deep down? Or avoid being in photographs out of fear of what people will think about how you look? Avoidance is one of the most common behaviors of people with anxiety. People with anxiety think that avoidance helps to stave off anxiety. If you avoid something that makes you anxious, the anxiety will stay away, right? It sounds logical. But avoidance actually helps to MAINTAIN anxiety! When we avoid something, we are telling ourselves we can’t handle it. The more we avoid it, the more power we give to the anxiety. When we are anxious, the amygdala, a part of the brain, floods the body with cortisol and adrenaline. The more you do the thing that makes you anxious, the more you teach your amygdala that the situations it thought were threatening enough to start producing cortisol and adrenaline aren’t as threatening as it thought. When you face your anxiety, you are re-training your amygdala stop including social situations, riding the subway, giving a presentation, or other things that may make you anxious on its threat list. But when you continue avoiding situations that make you anxious, you enforce your amygdala’s perception of the things that make you anxious as a real threat.
Think of avoidance as negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is when a behavior is rewarded because that behavior removes an unwanted stimulus or feeling. For example, when I get into a car and forget to put on my seat belt, the car starts beeping loudly at me. That beeping is annoying! So to get the beeping to stop, I put on my seat belt. Putting on my seat belt stops the annoying beeping so I can enjoy the car ride in peace. The car’s beeping is negatively reinforcing me to put on my seatbelt. The next time I get in the car, I'm more likely to put on my seatbelt right away to avoid the annoying beeping noise.
Now that you understand negative reinforcement, let’s get back to anxiety and avoidance. Each time you attempt to accomplish a goal (big or small), but let your anxiety take control and back down, you are avoiding the discomfort of attempting the goal and thus negatively reinforcing yourself. You are sabotaging your goals just so you don't have to experience anxiety! Just like with the seat belt and the annoying beeping noise, the more you avoid situations that make you feel anxiety, the more likely you are to avoid anxiety-inducing situations in the future.
Here's an example of negative reinforcement using social anxiety: Brian has social anxiety, just started a new job, and wants to get to know his new co-workers. He goes to a local sandwich shop during his lunch break and sees his co-workers chatting at a table. His anxiety is through the roof! As much as he wants to pull up a chair, sit down, and introduce himself to his co-workers, his anxiety about making a fool of himself and what his co-workers will think of him wins. Brian wants his anxiety to end. He walks out of the sandwich shop and eats lunch at his desk. He is alone, but he is comfortable. He didn’t face his anxiety.
So how can you overcome your avoidance of anxiety and accomplish your goals? Part of the key to reducing your avoidance behavior is to understand how you are influenced by negative reinforcement. You have to catch yourself in the moment, when you are about to avoid an anxiety-invoking situation, and recognize that avoiding the situation would negatively reinforce your avoidance of anxiety, and thus self-sabotaging your goals.
One of the ways you can catch yourself in a moment of anxiety avoidance is by being in tune with the physical systems of anxiety. Here is a list of the physical symptoms of anxiety that red-flags that you could be in an anxiety avoidance moment:
- Pounding heart
- Frequent urination or diarrhea
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
- Muscle tension or twitches
- Shaking or trembling
Recognizing that the risk involved in the situation you’re avoiding is not as great as you think is an important step towards ending avoidance behaviors. When you’re facing a situation that makes you feel low to moderate anxiety like giving a presentation, attending a job interview, or going into an environment that provokes anxiety for you like a supermarket, restaurant, or an elevator, take some deep breaths, remind yourself of the most realistic scenario that may occur, and make the conscious decision to confront your anxiety and pursue the situation. Here are some positive affirmations that can help you confront your anxiety:
- With every breath I take, I become more relaxed.
- I am having an anxious thought. I can move on from this thought.
- My goal is to show up and see what happens.
- This situation is a positive opportunity.
By reading this article, you are already on your way towards ending your avoidance behavior. Did you feel anxiety while reading the article? Did you start exhibiting some of the physical symptoms of anxiety listed above and start to browse another website? Well, you’re here now. You tolerated the symptoms. You came back. You finished the article. I hope that with this article, you’ll be one step closer to ending the self-sabotaging, negative reinforcement, avoidance of anxiety, and embrace the future with hope and confidence.
If you would like more help ending avoidance behaviors and facing your anxiety, consider scheduling an individual session with an anxiety therapist at the Center for Growth or attending the Center for Growth’s support group for anxiety and depression. We have offices in Philadelphia PA, Ocean City NJ, Mechanicsville VA, and Santa Fe NM.