Avoidance and Anxiety: Does Avoidance Help or Hurt?

Community Member

They say there are only two things which are certain in life: Death and taxes. Most everything else in life is a choice. Yet how many choices do we decline due to fear and anxiety? How often do our fears limit our opportunities? If you suffer from any type of anxiety disorder, avoidance can be your primary defense. Many people who suffer from anxiety react by avoiding those events and situations which provoke psychological discomfort. But does this strategy work in the long run? Does there come a time when we realize that our fears have backed us into a corner and there is no more room to hide? But are there also times when avoidance behaviors are not only acceptable but important to maintaining our mental health? In this post we are going to take a look at when avoidance is sabotaging your psychological growth and when such behaviors are an appropriate coping mechanism.

When is avoidance bad for us?

Let's say you had an incident where you had a panic attack in a crowded supermarket. A thought came into your head that you would not be able to escape the crowd and could be trampled if there was a mass exodus from the store. Your memory of this panic attack makes you avoid going to this particular supermarket so you choose another. Yet the same fears arise when you go into a new store. You not only fear the possibility of a crowd, you are also anxious over the thought of having another panic attack in a public place. Your anxiety and fear begin to generalize and magnify over time to most public settings until you seldom leave your home. This is an instance where avoidance behavior has generalized to other settings and agoraphobia is the result. This is an extreme example but it does illustrate how avoidance behaviors can end up severely limiting our day to day functioning.

Here are a few indications when avoidance behavior can harm our mental health and well being:

  • Your avoidance is hindering or limiting your day to day functioning including the ability to hold down a job, perform daily chores, or sustain relationships with others.

  • Your avoidance is preventing you from doing things you really would like to do but are too fearful.

  • Your avoidance behaviors are causing you, your family and loved ones psychological distress.

  • Your avoidance is causing you to lose opportunities for growth in your career, relationships, and personal enjoyment of life.

  • You feel as though you are a hostage to your anxiety.

Is there ever a time when avoidance is mentally healthy?

There may be some who may argue with my philosophy on this but yes I do believe there are situations where avoidance is essential to maintain your mental health and well being. The best case example of this is in dealing with toxic people in your life. Everyone has their psychological limitations. If you are in a situation where you are constantly exposed to people who drain your energy, ability to function, and cause you undue stress and anxiety, it may be time to think of how to limit this exposure. If you have tried everything you know how to create more peaceful and positive interactions with this person, and they remain unchanged in how they treat you, it is time to think about limiting your time with this person. This is particularly true when there is any sort of abuse involved. There are simply some relationships you cannot save no matter how hard you "work" at it. Some may call your distance avoidance and some may call it a wise choice to protect your precious mental health.

Here are some guidelines as to when avoidance is best for your mental health:

  • Avoidance or limiting exposure to toxic people or situations may protect our mental health and psychological stamina.

  • You are not a coward or irresponsible if you avoid situations and events which pose a danger to your physical and psychological safety.

  • Temporary avoidance can give you time to think about an appropriate response especially if the situation involves interpersonal conflict.

Here are some questions to ask yourself in order to ascertain as to whether or not avoidance behavior is healthy or unhealthy in a particular situation: -** Is the object, situation, event, or person you wish to avoid essential for your day to day functioning?**

For example, I have a fear of rollercoasters. I have been on them and I don't like them. Rollercoasters are not a part of my daily functioning. I can choose to avoid this fearful stimulus and my life is not any worse for it. But, for example, if you fear elevators and you work on the tenth floor of your building. You may wish to deal with your elevator phobia as it impacts your daily life and functioning.

  • Has your avoidance behaviors generalized to similar objects or situations?

For example, in a previous post I described a situation where my autistic son developed a phobia of an amusement park train. This fear then began to generalize to all trains including a playground structure near our home which remotely resembled a train. In this case we needed to implement systematic desensitization strategies so that we could leave our house without him being freaked out every time he spied a train-like structure. If your phobia or fear has generalized to many different settings you may wish to get some help in dealing with the core phobia before it gets out of control.

  • Is your avoidance causing you to miss out on opportunities for growth?

For example, maybe you are fearful of any type of public speaking. But your career advancement depends upon your ability to give presentations to others. This may be a situation where you may wish to get help in learning to overcome your public speaking fear so that you can advance in your career.

  • Is your avoidance essential for your physical or psychological health?

Sometimes it is necessary to switch jobs, to leave an abusive partner, or move to a safer neighborhood in order to protect your well being.

  • Will facing your fear result in any benefit to your overall functioning and mental health?** Will overcoming a fear or phobia make your life any easier? Will you increase your ability to feel joy and satisfaction in decreasing your avoidance behaviors?**

One example from my own life is that I am deathly afraid of plane travel. However, if I want to see my family who live far away, plane travel is convenient. It gives me more time to spend with my family.

These are just some of the things to think about when you think about avoiding those elements in your life which cause you fear and anxiety. There are consequences to everything we do and also for those things we do not do. Avoidance does have consequences. Sometimes these consequences are good for us and sometimes they injure our psychological functioning. It is up to you to choose when backing away from something is the best course of action and when it is better to face a fear head-on.

We would like to hear from you now. Do you find that you use avoidance as a coping mechanism to deal with your anxiety? When is it a healthy response and when has avoidance hurt you? What are some things you avoid in your life? How is that working for you? We want to hear your story. Please share it here. We are listening