What Is the Cycle of Avoidance And How to Break It

What Is the Cycle of Avoidance And How to Break It

Avoidance is something we all do. We avoid people, places, and situations we don’t like because, for some reason, these things irritate us or cause us pain. Avoidance is a natural and healthy thing we do to minimize our stress.

No one likes stress, and it makes sense that we apply self-protective methods to avoid situations that we perceive as stressful or painful. Preventing stress and maintaining control seems a reasonable way to remain calm, but it can do more harm than good.

Avoidance behavior used as a coping mechanism can empower you. It gives you a false sense of control and makes you feel good at the moment, but avoiding problems does not solve them.

Instead, it can lead to destructive coping mechanisms such as isolation and substance abuse. This creates a vicious cycle of avoidance that increases stress and creates and reinforces anxiety and depression.

The Cycle of Avoidance

Avoidance behaviors become self-destructive when used to avoid or distract us from difficult thoughts, feelings, situations, and conversations. As a result, we avoid the pain we must face and deal with to stop the avoidant behavior.

People use avoidance as a natural coping mechanism for pain, trauma, and other mental health issues. Still, avoidance creates a problem when it keeps us from moving forward in life and keeps us in a cycle of anxiety and avoidance.

Avoidance as a coping mechanism may lead you to avoid essential responsibilities, positive situations like a new job or career opportunities, relationships, social situations, recreational activities, and more.

Avoiding people, places, and events restricts your life and have the opposite effect of what you want. You may experience temporary relief in the short term, but avoidance increases stress and anxiety in the long run.

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Types of Avoidance Behavior

When we avoid anxiety-induced thoughts and feelings, we reinforce them by not resolving the cause of these thoughts and feelings. It allows the cycle of anxiety and avoidance to continue. We must learn how to stop the stress and reduce the anxiety and depression contributing to avoidant behavior.

1. Situational Avoidance

Situational avoidance is the most common type of avoidance. It is when we stay away from people, places, things, or activities that trigger stress or pain. Some of the ways situational avoidance can manifest are:

  • A veteran avoids fireworks because the noise triggers a stress response
  • Someone avoids crowded spaces because of a traumatic event experienced in a crowd
  • Not driving past the house of a failed recent relationship
  • Avoiding small places because we were locked in a closet as a child

2. Cognitive Avoidance

Cognitive avoidance is when we shift our minds away from thoughts, feelings, or memories that are stressful or painful. For example, we distract our minds with:

  • Fantasies
  • Mental Rituals
  • Ritualized Prayers
  • Affirmations
  • Chronic Worrying
  • Over-Preparing
  • Over-Planning
  • Obsessive Thinking

3. Protective Avoidance

Protective avoidance refers to actions you take in the external environment that help you feel safer in your internal environment. Productive avoidance can be associated with behaviors such as:

4. Somatic Avoidance

Somatic avoidance is when we avoid situations because they elicit a physical response similar to anxiety or panic with associated symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, fear, breathlessness, sweating dizziness. People who avoid using these bodily responses will avoid activities or situations that trigger such responses.

These thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can include:

  • Constant worry about potential illness
  • Viewing normal physical sensations as a sign of severe physical illness
  • Fearing that symptoms are serious, even when there is no evidence
  • Feeling that medical evaluation and treatment have not been adequate
  • Fearing that physical activity may cause damage to your body
  • Repeatedly checking your body for abnormalities
  • Frequent health care visits that don’t relieve your concerns or that make them worse
  • Being unresponsive to medical treatment or unusually sensitive to medication side effects
  • Having a more severe impairment than is usually expected from a medical condition

5. Substitution Avoidance

Substitution avoidance is when we substitute a feeling or activity with a different feeling or action that’s easier to deal with or reduce our pain. Substitution avoidance can manifest internally or externally.

Internal substitution avoidance replaces feelings, like sadness or grief with anger, which may be easier to deal with. External substitution avoidance is something we use outside ourselves to cope with emotional pain like alcohol, food, drugs, sex, or anything that provides temporary relief from difficult or painful emotions.

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This is when you avoid pain by replacing or covering painful thoughts and feelings to generate feelings of numbness through risky behavior, gambling, video games, eating, and other impulsive behaviors.

Examples of Avoidance Behavior

Avoidance behaviors can present themselves in different ways, such as:

  • Procrastination
  • Escapism
  • Avoiding certain feelings or conversations
  • Drug/alcohol use
  • Wishful thinking or daydreaming
  • Burying one’s emotions
  • Self-isolation
  • Eating
  • Gambling
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Lowering voice when speaking
  • Leaving gatherings early
  • Making excuses to avoid attending any social gathering
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • Canceling plans at the last minute
  • Not responding to calls or texts
  • Avoiding certain places
  • Not applying for a new job

Effects of Avoidance Behavior

Avoidance leads to more stress, anxiety, and depression. Avoidance can become a destructive habit leading to greater anxiety or depression and susceptibility to more triggered responses. We can lose professional and social responsibilities, have few friends, hurt personal relationships, or keep ourselves in an avoidance anxiety cycle.

Avoidant behavior can be a symptom of the following mental health issues:

  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • PTSD
  • Avoidant Attachment
  • Abandonment Issues
  • Toxic Shame
  • Depression
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Toxic Relationships
  • Eating Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Substance Use Disorder

Avoidant Personality Disorder

Avoidant Personality Disorder affects 2.4% of the U.S. population. Genetics and environmental factors, especially in childhood, contribute to avoidant personality disorder. Parental or peer rejection is often associated with this disorder and can impact a person’s self-esteem, sense of worth, and coping skills.

During early childhood and youth, our brain responds to our environment. Positive, safe, and secure environments with warm, responsive parents help us learn to deal with stress and develop coping skills that we will use in the future.

Learning more about your early environment and how stress affects your brain can help you deal with avoidant behaviors.

Trying to prevent stress, painful thoughts, and feelings through avoidant behaviors instead of allowing yourself to feel the emotions provides a false sense of control. Rather, it gives control to the thoughts and emotions you’re trying to avoid.

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The symptoms of this behavior can be mild to severe and can create or increase the following:

  • Poor self-image
  • Thoughts of being inferior or inadequate
  • Lack of self-esteem
  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of the ability to take chances
  • Fear in social settings from fear of being embarrassed
  • Relationship problems from fear of rejection
  • Oversensitivity to criticism
  • Staying in a job or relationship that you don’t want to

This disorder can isolate a person from society without proper treatment, causing long-term work and social functioning difficulties, increased risk for anxiety and depression, and destructive behaviors.

How to Overcome Avoidance Behaviors

Once you understand what avoidance is and its ramifications in our lives, you need to investigate methods for relieving avoidant behaviors and improving the quality of your life. Stress exacerbates all mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms related to avoidance. Avoidance can mask itself as anxiety and depression.

Therefore learning how to understand and reduce the root causes of stress by getting stress coaching or anxiety and depression coaching to learn to deal with issues instead of avoiding them is paramount for decreasing avoidance.

5 Mental Shifts

First, we need to recognize and acknowledge certain concepts that will help us become the person we want to be. The following are additional thoughts to help you further in your quest to reduce avoidance and live the life that you deserve:

  1. Recognize and Understand What You’re Doing –  As you go through the process, be more mindful of your behavior patterns and how you might be avoiding negative feelings or situations in your life.
  2. Remind Yourself That It’s Ok to Feel Uncomfortable – Having negative thoughts and feelings does not make you a bad person. Allowing yourself to have these thoughts and feelings without judgment is part of the healing process.
  3. Remember That Bad Experiences Can Be Good – When things don’t go the way we want, instead of dwelling on the mistake or failure, step back and try to determine what went wrong. Find a solution to the situation and grow from the experience.
  4. Improve Coping Skills – Improving coping skills is important for reducing avoidance. Learning how stress affects our brain and contributes to the cycle of anxiety and avoidance will help us progressively challenge ourselves through anxiety-provoking tasks and conversations. These experiences will help us work through real-life scenarios that increase our coping skills and better prepare us for changes in the future.
  5. Strengthen Your Tolerance – Learn to understand your emotional triggers and personal stressors. Then, progressive exposure to mental and emotional triggers, anxiety-provoking things, can help reduce the avoidance of thoughts and feelings you are avoiding. Small incremental tasks can lead to significant changes and help overcome deep-rooted fears.

7 Stress Relief Techniques

Stress relief techniques act as a way to decompress before approaching a difficult situation. Over time, these techniques will lower baseline stress levels. Here are some strategies for reducing stress and overcoming avoidance behaviors:

  1. Commit to the Process – First and foremost, you must be willing to commit to the process required to overcome your avoidance.
  2. Go for a Walk in Nature – Nature is relaxing. Go for a walk on the beach or in the forest. Get out of the house and get some fresh air. Plan to go outside daily.
  3. Journaling – Writing things down helps to get thoughts and feelings out of your head. Reading our thoughts and feelings aloud can help us process these thoughts and feelings differently. Journaling can help us identify symptoms, sleep habits, mood, and daily negative thoughts and emotional patterns, and track our anxiety allowing us to understand where they come from and why.
  4. Deep Breathing Exercises – Deep breathing can reduce symptoms during a panic attack and help your mind calm down with anxiety. Practice inhaling a count of 4, exhaling a count of 6, and relaxing at a count of 2. Repeat this pattern several times.
  5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Individuals tense and relax a muscle after a few seconds. For example, start at the feet and then tense and relax each area of the body until the whole body feels more relaxed and focused.
  6. Meditation – Learn to meditate, practice mindfulness, focus your attention on the present, and recognize your emotional state to reduce stress.
  7. Cognitive Restructuring – Learning to identify and dispute irrational or maladaptive thoughts known as cognitive distortions that create stress.
  8. Seek Professional Help – You can always seek help from a good counselor or a coach that understands the effects of stress, avoidance, anxiety, and depression. Find someone who can guide you through learning to understand the root causes of your avoidant behavior.


Avoidance is a natural part of being human, acting to protect us from stress and pain. However, when avoidance becomes a way of life, it puts your life on hold, preventing a person from moving forward in their life.

Avoiding your feelings, thoughts, and memories can limit your life for weeks, months, or years. Unfortunately, in some cases, avoidance can become a way of life. Not only can that prevent personal growth and the satisfaction that comes with overcoming your fears, but it may take away from your overall quality of life.

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Avoidance can also hurt those around you. Developing coping skills, positive habits, and understanding how stress affects your brain and contributes to avoidance are necessary parts of the process required for maintaining mental and emotional balance in our lives.

Get the help that you need. Learn how to stop avoiding your life and live the life you deserve.

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com