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The perpetuating cycle of avoidance

So you’ve got an important speech for work or school coming up in a couple of weeks – and you’re feeling really stressed. You don’t like public speaking (what if I can’t do it?), you don’t feel confident (what if I mess up?) and you don’t know what to say (what if I’m boring and everyone hates it?) With all these ‘what ifs’ flying around, you start to feel pretty anxious and worried about having to give the speech. So in response to your anxiety, you avoid thinking about, planning for or writing the speech for as long as possible. Soon after doing this, you feel a little better – the dark cloud of stress and anxiety about the speech has lifted. But this ease is short lived, because before long it’s only a couple of days before you have to give the important speech, and now you’re not only stressed about giving it, but also getting it written on time, being prepared and feeling ready. So it seems that your problem actually got a whole lot more problematic.. right?

This is what we call the cycle of avoidance – when you avoid something because it makes you feel uncomfortable, you feel better in the short term, but in the long term the problem is still a problem – and it usually gets (or feels) bigger or worse. It’s like a way of coping without having to actually cope. Nobody really likes feeling uncomfortable emotions (anxiety, worry, stress, anger, sadness etc), and we’re unlikely to (willingly) put ourselves in situations that make us feel any of these things. But avoidance can often lead to becoming anxious or worried not about a particular feared outcome or consequence but rather of experiencing discomfort or uncomfortable emotions. When we run away from our thoughts and feelings, or even from particular situations, they gain greater power over us – not because they actually get worse or bigger (although sometimes this is the case with avoidance), but because we believe our anxiety. When we avoid, it’s as if we reward our anxiety for telling us to avoid the ‘thing’, which proves that the ‘thing’ is scary or threatening (even when it may not be) and in turn makes us avoid it again in the future – rather than tackling it and proving ourselves wrong.

Even things as subtle as distracting ourselves from uncomfortable emotions or thoughts is a form of avoidance – because rather than sitting with the discomfort, you are finding a way to take your mind off of it. But at some point, the uncomfortable feelings will find a way to surface, and you may be forced to deal with them at a not so convenient time,

Avoidance behaviours are natural responses, and we know that the past couple of years have not helped – in some cases it’s even made our avoidance worse, as we’ve been able to ‘get away’ with not doing things that would normally make us really uncomfortable. But (unfortunately), it’s the act of exposing ourselves to discomfort that actually helps us overcome our fears, grow and develop as individuals, and achieve big things. If you think (or know) that you tend to avoid things, maybe you could try out one of the tips below – you never know, they might help!


Take it step by step

Breaking down our fears can make things seem more manageable. Often it’s purely the thought of the entire task and how much there is to do that makes us anxious in the first place. For a task that feels overwhelming, it can be much easier to commit to doing a small part of it rather than the whole thing – and usually once you get started the rest seems much more doable. This also provides internal rewards for doing the thing you were avoiding – which is the opposite of what avoidance achieves – so you feel more confident in your ability to manage the task now and for next time. And if that doesn’t feel rewarding enough, physically rewarding yourself (with something of value to you personally) is another good option for getting through uncomfortable things.


Ride the wave

Emotions don’t have to hit us like a tonne of bricks – we can learn to ride the ups and downs as they arise. When we avoid emotions, they don’t just disappear, and so they have to go somewhere – this usually results in them building up, much like a volcano ready to erupt at any moment. Instead of forcing emotions aside, suppressing them or avoiding them altogether, we can mindfully acknowledge their existence and allow them to sit alongside us. This means learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and seeing that when we sit with feelings long enough they will eventually subside (usually without us even noticing). If you’re willing to try it, you’ll probably find you can handle much more than you thought – but make sure you’re in a safe environment with support nearby just in case you need it.


Ask for help

Sometimes, our anxiety can get too big and overwhelming that we have to talk about it with someone, whether that’s a family, friend or professional. If you are finding that your avoidance behaviours are starting to limit the way you live your life or that you are excusing the avoidance, it might be time to reach out. Taking the leap to speak with a professional means you’re holding yourself accountable for your avoidance, and recognising that you might like to change something in your life. That’s where we come in – Psychologists and Counsellors are trained in specialised interpersonal skills, and will work together with you to find active ways of coping rather than living through avoidance.

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