Paolo Assandri
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Avoid Avoidance: why avoiding anxiety creates more anxiety

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.

What are the limiting beliefs underlying avoidance strategies?

People who experience anxiety are "weak," strange or have a mental disorder.
Actually, everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. Even those who we most admire can experience anxiety, sometimes because of actual events, sometimes because of catastrophic worries or fantasies. Just as it happens to all of us. Moreover, anxiety is not necessarily a pathological symptom. If, however, you feel that the level of anxiety you are experiencing is causing great distress and limitations, you should see a psychologist, a psychotherapist or a medical doctor.

There is no way to overcome anxiety. Anxiety is stronger than me. Period.
Actually, although anxiety is something inevitable for all human beings, we can learn to tolerate it and make it an annoying but bearable companion on our journey. For example, if we train our nervous system to become less reactive to external stimuli, we can tolerate the discomfort that certain circumstances can cause. This is possible through activities such as mindfulness-based meditation, mindful breathing, autogenic training or yoga. However, those activities should be performed on a regular basis to let our nervous system become less reactive. Psychotherapy is also a great way to learn how to cope with anxiety-provoking situations. In fact, it can teach us to find new ways of interpreting stressful situations, to create functional coping strategies, and to change our attitude toward our existential challenges.

The more intense my anxiety is, the more real (and imminent) the danger.
Actually, the intensity of anxiety symptoms does not give us accurate information about how dangerous the circumstances we experience are. In fact, more than we think, our anxiety is triggered by worries, catastrophic fantasies and fears, which rarely become reality. Thus, anxiety is, often, unreliable as a warning signal. Just think of when watching a horror or thriller movie. While watching that kind of movie, we may feel great anxiety, but this does not mean that out life is in danger!

I cannot be fragile = I cannot be imperfect = I cannot be anxious.
Actually, we are all fragile, imperfect, and, in our own way, anxious, even if we don't like to admit it. Avoidance strategies keep us away, but only seemingly, from situations that may embarrass us, that may make us feel inadequate, or that may make us feel ashamed. In doing so, however, we nurture a vicious cycle in which we put ourselves in the position of not learning from our mistakes. We should all keep in mind that one of the greatest learnings occurs from the reflections that our mistakes prompt us to make.

What can you do about it?

1. Remember that avoidance strategies are not the solution. On the contrary: they can maintain the problem.
Although it may seem impossible, I invite you to let go of the idea that avoidance strategies can be the solution to your anxiety-related problems. If you think about it, in fact, you may come to the conclusion that, all the times you have employed them, their result has been only temporary. Avoidance strategies are how your anxiety-related problems are kept alive. And extremely effectively, I might add. 

2. You can learn to manage your anxiety.
Accepting anxiety and effectively enduring its manifestations is not an innate talent: it can be learned. Although it is true that some people may be naturally better at it than others, we can all learn to tolerate anxiety effectively. Remember that there is no such thing as the "Anxiety Management Olympics" and, for that very reason, there are no winners or losers: rather, we are all engaged in a learning process. 

3. Avoid avoidance and DO IT! But do it one step at a time.
In order to learn NOT to constantly employ avoidance strategies, we must do something that is counter-intuitive: we must push ourselves to deal with anxious situations. But we must learn to do it gently, gradually, and with the right degree of determination. 

In fact, if we face an anxiety-provoking circumstance, we will inform our nervous system that that is not a dangerous situation, And so, in future, when we face a similar situation, our nervous system will be less reactive. Therefore, we will feel less anxiety.

Start by dealing with the less anxiety-provoking situations, and as you go along, try those that generate a higher level of anxiety. But even with the latter, try to do it gradually. For example, if you keep avoiding crowded places, start with places that contain a number of people that generate a level of anxiety you are able to handle. Then gradually choose a situation that challenges you a little more. And so on. If, during this learning process, you feel that you are going too fast or putting too much pressure on yourself (with the risk of getting stuck), SLOW DOWN! Remember: do it one step at a time.

4. Accept that, like all human beings, you are imperfect and can make mistakes.
Consider that if you want to learn to tolerate anxiety, you must gradually learn to embrace your fragility, vulnerability and imperfection. In our existential journey, we all make mistakes and missteps. If, however, we welcome them as a learning opportunity, we can open ourselves to the opportunities for growth they contain. 

“"Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create by avoiding pain is avoidable."

R.D. Laing

Author: Paolo Assandri is a  Counselling Psychologist (HCPC and British Psychological Association registered), a Psychotherapist (UKCP) and Psychologist-psychotherapist (Ordine degli Psicologi del Piemonte). He is based in London where he lives and works.

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