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  • Matt Gillespie, M.A., RP, C.C.C.,

Anxiety and Avoidance: A Vicious Cycle

I think it’s fair to say that throughout our lives, each of us has experienced anxiety. For some, anxiety is a chronic, lifelong struggle and seems to impact all areas of life. For others, it may be situational, like the anxiety surrounding public speaking or writing an exam. For others still, anxiety may only flare up around major life events, such as starting out in a new job, making a large purchase such as a vehicle or a home, or getting married. Regardless of how often or how intensely it occurs, we are all susceptible to anxiety; it is part of the human experience, like emotion, or pain. It’s impossible to avoid anxiety completely, or to live an anxiety-free life. Rather, we have to work towards understanding our anxiety and developing tools to cope with it so that it does not have such a large impact on our everyday lives. This means accepting the fact that there are going to be situations where we experience anxiety, and taking steps to overcome the anxiety rather than let ourselves be controlled by it.

Of course, accepting anxiety can be a really difficult challenge, because it’s not something that feels good or enjoyable. I often hear from people who struggle with anxiety that they avoid situations or activities that cause them to experience anxiety in any way that they can. By avoiding these triggers, it gives the illusion that we are in control of our anxiety when in reality, we are allowin

g it to dictate where we go and what we do. Exposing ourselves to triggers and uncomfortable situations is the only way to take back that power and learn to actually control our anxiety.

Now, I’m not saying that we need to stare our deepest, darkest fears in the face, or to jump into the deep end of the pool immediately. Like learning to swim, we have to gradually enter the water, figure out what we are doing, and then challenge ourselves to swim further out once we are feeling more confident. It is the same with anxiety: we have to slowly, and in a controlled manner, expose ourselves to situations or stimuli that elicit an anxious response, starting with low level triggers and moving on to more difficult ones. As we make this progression, our anxious response becomes smaller and smaller, until it is quite manageable. This is known as Exposure and Response Prevention, and is one of the most effective, evidence-based treatments for anxiety.

The reasoning behind this is fairly simple: as we slowly expose ourselves to things that cause our anxiety, we learn that we are able to survive the experience despite feeling uncomfortable, and we begin to build up tolerance and resiliency. As we accumulate small victories over our anxiety, we develop more confidence to tackle larger challenges. In contrast, if we avoid our triggers whenever possible, that fear becomes larger and larger in our mind. Each time we avoid a stressful situation and breathe that sigh of relief, we are conditioning ourselves to further fear the stressor and seek comfort measures instead of facing it. Additionally, every time we avoid a stressor and avoid the dreaded consequence associated with it, we are inherently confirming our belief that avoidance leads to safety and that exposure to the stressor will bring harm. This avoidance is also one of the primary components of procrastination, and while it may lead to short-term, immediate gratification, it ultimately results in increased stress and anxiety.

Think about your own life. Are there any people, places, activities, or tasks that you avoid? If so, do you avoid them due to the anxiety surrounding them? This could be

avoiding driving in the snow for fear of an accident, avoiding a conversation with a friend or family member that might be uncomfortable, or maybe backing out of plans last minute to avoid social anxiety. Regardless of the context, the message to take home is that avoidance only leads to further anxiety down the line. Instead of avoiding something entirely, try exposing yourself to it in small doses. Go out with a few friends you trust. Break larger projects into smaller tasks and only focus on one at a time. Practice driving in imperfect conditions on quiet roads with little traffic, maybe bringing a friend for support. Set limits for yourself that will reduce the anxiety you feel without eliminating it altogether. The goal should not be to live a life free of anxiety, but rather to develop tools that will help us cope with anxiety, and resilience to face difficult, anxiety-inducing situations. In doing so, we are able to reclaim control over our lives one day at a time.

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