Breaking the Anxiety Avoidance Cycle

3.9 min read|788 words|Categories: Mental Health, Treatment & Therapy|

Everyone experiences fear and anxiety at times. In fact, a certain amount of these emotions can be beneficial by alerting us to danger and untrustworthy people, or motivating us to change something in our lives that isn’t working. 

However, when our experiences of fear and anxiety are out of proportion to the stimuli that’s causing them, these feelings can end up interfering with our daily lives. When fear and worry lead to cycles of avoidance, clinical anxiety may be at play.

Here’s everything you need to know about anxiety avoidance cycles and how to break out of them.

What is the anxiety avoidance cycle?

The anxiety avoidance cycle is the term for a strong tendency to pull away from something that causes discomfort. Avoidance can be conquered, but it’s hard work to tear down the walls your mind has built in an effort to protect you.

When something causes us fear or discomfort, wanting to escape it is a normal reaction. Sometimes the avoidance spirals, though, and our pleasure at avoiding discomfort only reinforces our idea that we should avoid it in the future, and the higher our anxiety becomes. The relief is short-lived.

Our brains are tricked into believing the best way to deal with discomfort is by avoidance. We may develop no other coping strategies and panic when we are faced with the thing we aim to escape. This avoidance behavior can turn into an unhealthy pattern and cause incredible dysfunction in our daily lives.

What are anxiety avoidance behaviors?

The anxiety avoidance cycle is clearer to understand through examples. Here are two case scenarios that illustrate the nature of avoidance cycles:

Fear of dogs

Imagine your sister is afraid of dogs. From an early age she has felt uncomfortable around dogs. Growing up, your family doesn’t interact with many dogs, so it’s easy to avoid at first. As the years go by, your sister refuses to go over to friends’ houses if they have pet dogs. Eventually, she only goes for walks in the middle of the night to avoid dogs and will not go outside otherwise.

Social anxiety

Imagine that you struggle with social interactions because you are insecure about your appearance and feel you don’t have anything worthwhile to share. You have a few friends in college you’re comfortable around, but after graduation, you live on your own without roommates. You find a remote job and rarely interact with anyone during the day. You have so little exposure to other people and little practice making small talk that you feel overwhelming anxiety even going to the grocery store.

Avoidance behaviors are often difficult to recognize in oneself because they build slowly over time. The emotional distress keeps you from living a normal life and finding ways to avoid fear is a daily, sometimes hourly, occupation.

Here are some additional behaviors you may notice when a cycle of avoidance has reached an extreme:

  • Drinking or using drugs to cope with worry or fear
  • Feeling the need to deprive yourself of experiences to avoid potential triggers
  • Saying no to things you’re interested in due to the possibility of an anxiety-provoking trigger
  • Taking routes that deliberately avoid something
  • Planning out your day to avoid something specific
  • Negative self-talk
  • Few or ineffective coping strategies
  • Neglecting self-care
  • Having a diagnosed anxiety disorder
  • Refusing to get treatment for anxiety

Avoidance cycles can become paralyzing and prevent you from living a full life. If you notice these signs in yourself or someone else, it’s time to get intervention.

How do I change anxiety and avoidance patterns?

Anxiety disorders are treatable. With the right treatment, support and lifestyle changes, you can stop your avoidance behavior by attacking the root of the fear. The most commonly used treatments for anxiety are exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (also known as CBT). These methods can help you gradually confront the thing feared so you realize it’s not the threat you imagined it to be.

Alongside these treatments, you’ll need to develop self-care and coping skills. When you learn strategies to manage the negative symptoms that come with intense worry or fear, you’ll find you’re much more equipped to tackle what once felt impossible. In the meantime, you’ll grow in confidence, decreasing your likelihood of feeling anxiety in the future.

How can I get help with anxiety avoidance cycles today?

If you’ve struggled with anxiety and avoidance, becoming free from worry and fear can become a reality. Reach out to Pyramid Online Counseling. You’ll be matched with a licensed, professional counselor so you can get started breaking the cycle of avoidance today. Reach out for help now.

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