Are You an Avoider? Recognizing—and Overcoming—Avoidance Behavior
We'd all rather sit home some nights—but when you do it all the time you may be indulging in avoidance behavior. Here's how to recognize it, and ways to overcome this unhealthy coping mechanism.
Are you using avoidance behavior?
Anyone who’s ever reluctantly attended a party only to spend the night playing with the host’s dog knows a thing about avoidance. Not comfortable in crowds? A game of fetch and lots of “Who’s a good boy?” can seem like a good alternative.
Avoidance behavior is a way to manage stress by avoiding difficult thoughts or feelings, and it can take a lot of forms. Maybe you buried yourself in Netflix binges to escape the stressful reality of life during the Covid-19 pandemic. Or perhaps you can’t be in public without a friend to make you feel comfortable.
While avoidance behavior serves a purpose, it doesn’t address the root issue. And that’s an issue when it comes to your mental health. As the saying goes, “if you resist, it will persist.”
Here’s a rundown on avoidance behavior and how to overcome it, according to experts.
What is avoidance behavior?
If you’re avoiding stressful or socially difficult situations through distractions or by staying away completely, you’re practicing avoidance behavior, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
Remember the anxiety you avoided by playing with a pup during a party? That might take a few different forms, depending on the type of avoidance.
You can partially avoid uncomfortable social situations by hanging with the dog or sitting in the corner the whole time. Or you might choose to escape and walk out in the middle of the party. Or you avoid gatherings entirely.
Who’s prone to avoidance behavior?
People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety are especially likely to use avoidance to dodge triggers or potentially harmful environments. Others may practice the behavior because they struggle with their emotions in general.
“If you’re comfortable with strong feelings, then you’ll have less need to avoid [them],” says Alice Boyes, PhD, a former clinical psychologist and author of The Anxiety Toolkit.
The allure of avoidance coping
Nobody likes stress. In a way, it makes sense that people would avoid situations they perceive as negative—it’s self-protective.
If public speaking gives you panic attacks, it’s no wonder you might leave a job that suddenly asks you to give presentations.
But avoidance goes beyond comfort, says Stefan Hofmann, PhD, a University of Boston psychology professor and director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory.
“Avoidance [can] give you power in situations,” he says, but that’s not always a good thing. This power provides a false sense of control and can give way to destructive coping mechanisms, such as isolation or even substance abuse.
The pitfalls of avoidance behavior
Preventing stress and gaining control sounds like a reasonable way to remain calm, but it could do more harm than good. In fact, experts say that while avoidance behavior can make you feel good in the moment, it’s bad for your long-term mental health.
“[Avoidance] puts you in a vicious cycle,” Hofmann says. Avoiding problems isn’t solving them, and it can leave you with nagging anxiety about what you’re not confronting. “Your stress about whatever you’re avoiding increases,” Boyes says.
Aside from reinforcing your anxiety, this coping mechanism can have some detrimental effects on your life. It may lead you to avoid facing your finances or responsibilities. Plus you can miss out on important opportunities like social events, connections, and job offers.
The issue can even impact those around you, says Boyes. Avoiding difficult conversations with a person, for example, or constantly using them for emotional support in uncomfortable settings can cause tension, leading to strained relationships.
Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images
Signs of avoidance behavior
People tend to fall into routines of turning down invitations or putting off meetings with friends and chalk it up to “this is just how I deal with things,” says Hoffman.
According to the APA, avoidance coping strategies may include, escapism, wishful thinking, self-isolation, undue emotional restraint, and constant alcohol or drug usage.
We all turn to books, movies, television, video games, or even a pleasant daydreaming session for a break. But when those escapes take precedence over socializing with friends, interacting with loved ones, or even work, the behavior qualifies as avoidance.
People relying on wishful thinking often interpret a fact or reality according to what they wish or desire it to be.
Sounds like optimism, doesn’t it? The difference is that positive thinking allows you to recognize facts, adapt, and change behavior for the best results. You see a challenge, you plan to meet it with a sound strategy, and then you work to achieve results.
Wishful thinkers may ignore facts and give in to delusion. There’s no planning or action, only passively hoping that things will work out for the best.
Revisit past situations where you felt positively about the situation but it didn’t pan out. Be truthful and recall whether you were working toward a desired outcome or being passive.
As a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings, some people isolate themselves—again, turning down social opportunities.
While it’s OK to take time away from social events in order to recharge and practice self-care, if you continually avoid social interaction, you may be self-isolating as a way to avoid anxieties or fears.
Burying your emotions
Have you ever been labeled emotionless or cold in situations? You may be practicing emotional restraint to avoid dealing with your feelings.
The problem is that your emotions will find a way out in less than healthy ways—you could experience sudden outbursts or feeling extreme uneasiness from minor things.
Constant alcohol or drug usage
There’s nothing wrong with a drink or two, but you shouldn’t be dependent on it to numb yourself or drown out a sense of reality.
To determine if you have a problem, consider whether you recognize these signs of addiction in yourself:
- You partake in substances to forget something in life or the past.
- You have trouble with sleeping, managing stress, or feeling down without it.
- You can’t maintain relationships or hobbies because of habits.
- You consistently go over personal limits.
- You long for the drug or feel strong urges.
- You act unlike yourself for access to it.
- You find yourself in dangerous situations or experiencing thoughts of suicide.
(If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.)
Procrastination vs. avoidance
Procrastination is a type of avoidance that people use to evade or delay things they know they should do, according to Hofmann.
And it turns out that procrastination can be positive, according to Boyes. By giving people time to process, procrastinating allows for creativity, decreases the chance of being overwhelmed, and reduces stress.
The difference between unhealthy avoidance coping and healthy procrastination is an awareness of an issue or task and an ability to face it. Avoidance, on the other hand, is a broader term for refusing to face an issue or task.
Overcoming avoidance behavior
No one wants to drown in their feelings. Learning to ride them, however, is crucial.
“Think of strong feelings like big, strong waves,” says Boyes. “Imagine surfing them rather than fighting them.”
Try acknowledging your emotions by writing them down or giving yourself time to sit with them. Figure out how big the “wave” is, asking yourself, “What am I feeling the most?”
Then ask, “Can I let these feelings go?” The answer to the question may surprise you and allow the wave to pass.
Find stress relievers
Doing stress-relieving practices before events helps you approach situations with calmness. Both experts stress the importance of finding sustainable habits (like yoga) rather than impulsive ones. (“Not skydiving,” says Boyes.)
Try simple practices, like meditating or going on a walk, to find a sense of joy, says Hoffman.
Don’t allow these activities to be a slippery slope into avoidance. Think of these tasks as prep work rather than distractions. Use them as a way to decompress before entering a difficult situation because it will allow you to approach whatever is stressing you out with a sense of ease.
“Break habitual patterns, become flexible, try things out, and see what works,” says Hofmann.
Life presents changes and challenges, and your ways of coping can evolve. Finding healthy coping mechanisms can take days or years, so remember to be patient and adapt.
Be open to change; new habits that work at the moment may be ineffective later.
Use your understanding of personal stressors to strengthen your tolerance.
“Get lots of practice doing things you find anxiety-provoking,” says Boyes. “Start with things that are mildly anxiety-provoking, and work gradually.”
For something like social anxiety, start by going somewhere familiar, or attending gatherings with people you know, then slowly venture out. Tasks may seem small, but they can lead to big changes in overcoming trauma-rooted fears.
Worst-case scenarios exist only in our heads, yet they tend to impact our actions.
“People stick to habits to prevent whatever horrible consequence they envision,” Hofmann says. “If this horrible consequence doesn’t happen, you did all of these bizarre things for nothing.”
Embrace the idea that hypothetical situations are just that—hypothetical. There’s a chance what you’re trying to avoid may not happen at all.
Remember that bad experiences can be good
If something does go wrong, grow from it.
“The more you avoid, the less practice you get at feeling challenged,” says Boyes. ” People underestimate how important it is to learn skills for managing anxiety-provoking tasks or conversations.”
The experience of working through real-life scenarios helps better prepare you for future encounters.
Seek professional help
Although experiences are individualistic, if you feel your anxiety-induced avoidance prevents you from living the way you want to live, Hofmann suggests seeking a therapist, who can help you work through it.
- American Psychological Association: "Avoidance coping"
- Alice Boyes, PhD, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and former clinical psychologist and researcher
- Stefan Hofmann, PhD, psychology professor and director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University
- Start Your Recovery: "Learn to recognize the signs of a drug or alcohol problem"