Avoiding Avoidance

Avoidance is a natural response to fear and anxiety.  Fear is adaptive and serves as an alarm to move us out of harm’s way.  Many stressors, such as running across a busy street or scaling a tall building, should be avoided.  Each time we successfully stay safe, our brain rewards us with a flood of relief; we survived, and we like that feeling.

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However, when daily, non-fatal anxiety enters our lives, the brain amps up and responds with stress hormones similar to those present in times of real danger.  For those with anxiety disorders, this means that the body often feels the same in the face of tests and homework as it does when encountering mountain lions and death-defying cliffs. However, this is anxiety’s little trick, because we all know that while the SATs maybe be scary and overwhelming, they will not lead to imminent peril.

When anxiety strikes and the avoidance instinct kicks in, there are two choices; press forward in small, manageable ways to eventually your way through the stressor, or engage in total avoidance. The trick to managing anxiety is taking path number one, i.e., taking small, doable steps towards facing your fears.  This requires the troublesome task of trading short-term stress for long-term gain.  While option two works (avoidance) in the short term to ease tension, it has a quite a few drawbacks.  If we solely avoid, it will become harder and harder to face our fears, and we will get to a place where faith in ourselves to overcome anxiety becomes quite low.  Dips in self-confidence/self-esteem often follow because of we forget the feeling of pushing ourselves past what we think we are capable of.  The key is never doing it all at once, but rather breaking a task down into what feels like manageable steps and starting a bit at a time.

When it comes to using this strategy in parenting, it can be a tough sell.  Encouraging your kids to do a task they would rather not is hard.  Children really know how to make a great case for avoiding – they can talk, cry, negotiate, and tantrum their way out of many things.  While we do not have to pick every battle, if avoidance becomes a pattern, it may be important to figure out if there is an underlying anxiety that is leading to their evasion behaviors.  Help them get through a tough activity/situation by empathizing with their feelings, while still showing your confidence in their ability to try.   They are also not required to do an entire task all at once, but rather make small steps toward trying.  No one runs a marathon in one day, but the first step is getting off the couch.  Make sure they are armed with anxiety soothing techniques, such as deep breathing strategies, fidget toys, or a calming place to go if they need short breaks.  Positive self- talk, practicing the situation in advance, or identifying a supportive adult can be helpful as well.  Sometimes, simply asking what is making them worried, and making small accommodations to make the situation easier can be a useful way to reduce anxiety.  If avoidance continues to persist, it may to time seek professional help to address the situation.


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