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About Avoiding Avoidance

Updated: Mar 15

What is one of the biggest contributors to our modern epidemic of anxiety and depression?


Avoidance is an all-too-common behavioral response that individuals often engage in when faced with situations or stimuli that trigger negative emotions like anxiety, fear, depression, or distress.

Binging shows,

Video games,

Online shopping,

Alcohol, drugs, and

Hanging with friends

These are common methods of avoiding our stressors. In the short term, avoidance seems to reduce anxiety because it provides immediate relief from distressing thoughts, emotions, and situations. But over time, avoidance responses can exacerbate and contribute to mental health issues. Psychological studies consistently reveal a strong relationship between avoidance behaviors and the growth of various mental health issues.

Here are some reasons why avoidance is problematic for your mental health issues:

1. Reinforcement of Fear and Anxiety: Avoiding uncomfortable situations can reinforce the perception that those situations are indeed dangerous or threatening. This can lead to an escalation of anxiety, fear, depression, or other uncomfortable emotions over time, as the person never gets the chance to learn that their fears are often unfounded or manageable. Avoidance creates a self-perpetuating cycle where the more a person avoids, the harder it becomes to face the avoided situations. This can lead to a growing sense of powerlessness and increased distress.

2. Shrinks Coping Skills: Avoidance can interfere with daily functioning at work, school, and relationships preventing individuals from developing effective coping strategies to deal with challenging situations. Over time, this can leave them ill-equipped to handle stressors and uncertainties that are a normal part of life. Instead of getting better at dealing with stressors, we actually get worse. This lack of practice in dealing with difficulties can hinder personal growth and resilience and thereby increases anxiety, depression, and other troubling mental issues.

3. Social Isolation: Since many stressors occur in social situations, avoidance can lead to increased social isolation, as individuals might avoid social gatherings, public spaces, or interactions that trigger anxiety. This isolation can contribute to feelings of loneliness, low-self-esteem, and mental issues such as depression.

4. Maintaining Unhelpful Beliefs: Many modern therapies acknowledge the importance of helpful beliefs for maintaining mental health. Avoiding stressors reinforces and rewards irrational or distorted beliefs. For example, someone with social anxiety might avoid parties because they believe they will embarrass themselves. By avoiding the situation, they never have the chance to challenge this belief and realize that their fears may be exaggerated or wrong.

Avoiding avoidance is an important aspect of many evidence-based therapies for anxiety and other mental health issues. Gradual exposure to feared situations, along with learning healthy coping mechanisms and cognitive restructuring (challenging and modifying irrational beliefs), can help individuals break the cycle of avoidance and build greater resilience to distressing emotions. If you or someone you know is struggling with the negative effects of avoidance and its impact on mental health, seeking the guidance of a mental health professional can be highly beneficial.

Avoiding Avoidance

The opposite of avoidance in mental health is approach or engagement. Instead of avoiding thoughts, emotions, or situations that trigger distress, individuals should practice approaching and engaging these challenges in a constructive and proactive manner. Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and many other therapeutic methodologies help people avoid avoidance - facing and dealing effectively with stressors.

Here are two examples of avoiding avoidance.

Bill has troubling social anxiety. He gets so tense and nervous, before meeting with clients that he must fight the temptation to just escape appointments. This problem is interfering with his sales and customer service - and it’s getting worse. Instead of avoidance, a counselor equips Bill with ACT tools to reduce the symptoms and face the emotions head-on. With practice, these tools decrease Bill’s social anxiety and increase his work performance.

Miranda, a mom of three, has been struggling with depression for several years. During rough bouts, she sleeps and binges Netflix to avoid the intrusive thoughts of hopelessness and low self-esteem. Instead of avoiding her depression, her counselor helps Miranda use tools to “take these thoughts captive” and replace them with better and truer thoughts.

Despite thousands of self-help books, podcasts, and articles like this one, sometimes people just need a counselor to provide an objective view, to share helpful insights gathered over decades of work, to coach their efforts, and to encourage their progress. If you want an objective third-party to help you, please let us know. Next Step Counseling is ready to help. We are a Christian Counseling practice helping people in Gallatin and Hendersonville, Tennessee. With over 32 years of experience, we help individuals overcome difficult emotions, replace negative thoughts, and improve their lives. We offer both face-to-face and tele-sessions, so you can choose the option that best meets your needs. Let us help you. Contact Next Step Counseling today. Avoid avoiding and start thriving.

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