I think it has happened to everyone, at least once in our lives, that we have avoided a situation just because it caused us anxiety. Maybe we didn't go to a party because we didn't know many of the guests, or we didn't take an exam because we didn't feel prepared enough, or we didn't take a plane because we didn't feel safe.
If we did, we used one of what are called "avoidance strategies." Simply put, we chose not to deal with the anxiety that a situation might cause us by avoiding that specific situation. In this way, we temporarily decreased that stress level, felt better, but, perhaps, also felt a sense of defeat.
There is nothing wrong with using some avoidance strategy from time to time. We all do it occasionally. However. there is a problem when avoidance strategies become our habitual way of coping (or rather, NOT coping) with the challenges in our lives, whether big or small.
What effects can avoidance strategies have on the quality of our existence and mental health?
Avoidance strategies increase anxiety.
Our nervous system (and therefore our brain as well) is plastic. In other words, it changes according to our experiences and habitual thoughts. The more consistently we use avoidance strategies to lower anxiety, the more we make our nervous system particularly responsive to certain stimuli. Our brain then learns to classify as "dangerous" all situations similar to those we usually avoid. So, for example, if our nervous system constantly gets the message that "situations with lots of people" are risky, we may find ourselves gradually avoiding all places we perceive as "crowded," including those that are essential to our survival (e.g., our workplace or a supermarket).
Avoidance strategies do not solve the problem: they maintain it.
In English we say "what you resist, persists". In fact, all avoidance strategies are an illusory (and ineffective) attempt to resist anxiety. In trying to avoid it, however, we preclude ourselves from learning how to embrace it, manage it and tolerate its manifestations. In this way, we reinforce the unhealthy belief that we can only succumb to its power. In short, we become victims of anxiety.
Avoidance strategies can deteriorate our personal and professional relationships (even those that are important to our well-being).
Not only they keep us away from what causes us anxiety, they can also distance us from what we enjoy, from social occasions, responsibilities, and professional or personal opportunities. In this way, we reinforce the (mistaken) belief that we can only succumb to its power. In short, we become victims of anxiety.
Avoidance strategies cause us to lose confidence in ourselves.
Whenever we avoid a situation that causes us anxiety, we consolidate the idea that we are unable to cope with the challenges of our existence. In this way we lose our sense of self-efficacy, the belief that we can successfully invest our energy and resources to achieve our goals.