Is Avoidance Making Your Anxiety Worse?


It may seem like an innocent quick fix, but avoiding uncomfortable emotions can have lasting consequences.

Avoidance is natural. It’s what we do to protect ourselves from people and situations that strike us as unpleasant — or even dangerous. You probably avoid driving in blizzards, right? Or steer clear of dark alleyways at night. You may even put off fetching the mail when you see your overly chatty neighbor hanging around nearby. We avoid things like these every day, often to our benefit. 

But some of us take avoidance to extremes. What started as a healthy fear of spinning out on an icy road — perhaps amplified by a past accident — turns into paralyzing anxiety about driving anywhere. As a kid, hiding from people helped you avoid school bullies. Today, it prevents you from forming meaningful relationships.  

This is known as avoidance behavior, and while it can take many forms, there’s often a common thread… sometimes, in trying to safeguard yourself from discomfort, you actually intensify it.

Avoidance And Anxiety Go Hand-In-Hand

Avoidance is a hallmark of many anxiety disorders, including social anxiety and specific phobias.1 It’s a coping mechanism we adopt in response to extreme fear and anxiety. But when it becomes chronic, far from keeping us safe, it only worsens our anxiety.2

Suppose you keep avoiding a major project at work or having a tough conversation with a loved one. With avoidance you may feel short-term relief, but your thoughts will eventually return to that stressor, because you haven’t addressed it. So, it lurks in the background and follows you around like a shadow. “Your stress about whatever you’re avoiding increases,” says Alice Boyes, PhD, clinical psychologist.3

In addition to worsening your anxiety, avoidance behaviors often have additional far-reaching consequences. For example, avoiding that work project may cost you a promotion — or even your job. And putting off a difficult conversation with a friend can create tension and ultimately strain your relationship. 

How Can I Tell If I Have Unhealthy Avoidance Behaviors?

Maybe you already know avoidance is a problem for you. Or, maybe you suspect as much, but aren’t sure how it’s playing out in your life. It may help to consider these common avoidance behaviors, and reflect on whether any of these describes you.

How To Avoid Avoidance

The first steps to changing your avoiding ways are to recognize the harm that it is causing and decide you’ve had enough.  

Choosing to stop using a defense mechanism you’ve relied on for so long can be hard. However, avoidance probably isn’t working for you. In fact, it’s probably creating more problems. Can you think of a recent instance when you used avoidance? Are you still actively avoiding whatever it was that caused your initial anxiety? How did you feel then? Now? Odds are you’re stirring up some negative emotions.

Now, imagine you resolved the thing you’re avoiding. What opportunities does that open up? We can’t predict what will happen, but perhaps putting your worries to bed means you can finally sleep soundly. 

If you’re ready to leave your avoiding ways behind, then it’s time try cognitive behavioral therapy.

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychological treatment commonly used for anxiety tactics like avoidance.5 One of CBT’s core principles is that psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.6 Moreover, the key to easing symptoms lies in learning better ways of coping with problems.7

If you go the therapist route, CBT delivered by a mental health professional, can help you identify the thoughts and beliefs that are causing you anxiety, and, therefore, avoidance. This person can also help you come up with tactics for avoiding avoidance. However, much of this can be done on your own.

Do-It-Yourself CBT

If you’re eager to get started — or you’d rather not work with a mental health professional — there are plenty of techniques you can do on your own to address avoidance.

Acknowledge avoidance behaviors.

Notice when you feel anxious. What are you anxious about? How do you instinctively want to deal with it? Your first thought may be to hop in bed and hide under the covers. Or turn on the television. Perhaps you want to decline the invitation or leave the area.

Jot down your observations. Eventually, you’ll start seeing patterns in your behavior. This information helps you identify which avoidance habits you need to work on.

Practice, practice, practice.

Repeatedly exposing yourself to situations that cause anxiety can help you build a tolerance for it.

People underestimate how important it is to learn skills for managing anxiety-provoking tasks or conversations,

—— says Boyes8

It also proves to yourself that you’re capable of confronting your fears and managing the feelings of anxiety that accompany them. In CBT parlance, this is known as exposure therapy. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), in this form of therapy, a psychologist creates a safe setting to expose you to the things you fear or avoid.9 This treatment has been proven effective for many problems, including phobias, panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and generalized anxiety disorder.10

You can practice exposure therapy on your own by getting in the habit of doing things you find anxiety-provoking. But note that if you’ve been diagnosed with a phobia, PTSD or have had strong reactions to anxiety in the past (like panic attacks), it’s best to practice exposure therapy with a licensed mental health professional.

Start small.

When you’re faced with a situation you’re inclined to avoid, pause.

Ask yourself: What is one step I can take toward my fears and anxiety to overcome my avoidance?

—— suggests Luana Marques, PhD., an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.11

For example, suppose you’re anxious about having a difficult conversation. In that case, you might start by writing down what you’d like to say to that person. Or, if your fears of public speaking are holding you back from work opportunities, consider volunteering to read a book to your child's (or grandchild’s) classroom. Gradually ramp up the intensity of the challenge as you do your DIY exposure therapy.

Keep going.

Things won’t always go right when facing your fears — and that’s okay! The fact that you’re addressing your avoidance behaviors signals progress. Don’t allow setbacks to derail you; use them as learning experiences. Above all, keep moving forward!

Avoid Avoidance
To Improve Your Life

Avoidance offers quick relief when faced with an uncomfortable emotion or situation, but any consolation is short-lived. You’ll probably find that constantly avoiding something makes you more anxious and stressed than at the outset. By practicing certain CBT strategies, there is a strong chance you will be able to wean yourself off your avoidance behaviors and ease your anxiety. In the process, your life will be changing for the better!

1 Hofmann SG, Hay AC. Rethinking Avoidance: Toward a Balanced Approach to Avoidance in Treating Anxiety Disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. April 2018.
2 Hofmann SG, Hay AC. Rethinking Avoidance: Toward a Balanced Approach to Avoidance in Treating Anxiety Disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. April 2018.
3 Are You an Avoider? Recognizing — and Overcoming — Avoidance Behavior. The Healthy. June 16, 2021.
4 Avoidance Coping. American Psychological Association.
5 What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? American Psychological Association. 2017.
6 What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? American Psychological Association. 2017.
7 What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? American Psychological Association. 2017.
8 Are You an Avoider? Recognizing — and Overcoming — Avoidance Behavior. The Healthy. June 16, 2021.
9 What Is Exposure Therapy? APA. 2017.
10 What Is Exposure Therapy? APA. 2017.
11 Avoidance, Not Anxiety, May Be Sabotaging Your Life. The Washington Post. June 16, 2023.