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How to Conquer Avoidance Behavior

Steps for Conquering AvoidanceDo you find yourself often canceling plans with friends or family? 

Are you avoiding a conversation with your boss about a raise? 

Are there certain places you won’t go? Phone calls you know you should answer, but let go to voicemail?

Does your kid make up excuses to stay home from school? 

Avoidance is a real problem. And it’s common. No one really wants to be in uncomfortable situations, but unfortunately, discomfort is part of growth and success in life. If we avoid too many situations, we suffer.

Why do we avoid things?

Quite simply, we’re afraid. Our brains perceive a threat and try to protect us through avoidance. This, in turn, keeps us from doing what we want to do, or need to do to move ahead with our lives. Where these fears originate is not always obvious, even to ourselves, but even more so when we observe someone else avoiding things. 

We never really know what’s going on in other’s minds.

For example, if your kid is avoiding going to school, there are reasons why. Is he ashamed because he’s struggling academically? Is your daughter being bullied at school? Are they shy and afraid to speak out in class for fear of being teased by classmates?

Maybe it’s not about them at all. They may be afraid to leave a parent at home who’s suffering from depression, alcoholism, or a serious illness.

The Brain and Fear

Fear is a normal emotion. We all have to deal with it. The deepest parts of our brain, the amygdala, the so-called ‘lizard brain,’ exists to protect us from dangers. If we see a bee, it will alert the hypothalamus to release adrenaline, dopamine, and other chemicals needed for fight or flight. 

While amygdala does a great job of that, it isn’t adept at discerning between real threats, and imagined ones. 

Just because we see a bee doesn’t mean it will attack us, but the amygdala triggers the body to react as if you are already under attack. As a result, you will experience physiological reactions, such as heart palpitations, stomachache, headache, nausea, and sweating. 

Because of this reaction, we believe we need to avoid the perceived threat altogether. That’s where the problem arises. It can create a feedback loop of avoidance. These loops can play out in a couple different ways.

Complete Avoidance

One way it plays out is when we feel anxiety rising due to some situation in the near or distant future, and we avoid the situation completely. We start to think, “What if x happens?,” X, being an anticipated negative outcome. Instead of risking X, we decide to avoid the situation altogether, to cancel the dinner date, or the meeting with our boss, or getting on the bus to go to school. 

We have listened to our fear, our Lizard Brain, and heeded its advice. We avoid the fear-causing situation, and we feel better, for a short time.

The problem with this strategy is that it reinforces our fear. Our fear grows with every avoidance. And as our fear grows, our self-esteem takes a hit, making it even more difficult to face the situation the next time it arises. And it will always arise, again and again.

Attempt, then Avoid

The second way this plays out is when we make an attempt to face the fear, but fail. 

We decide to walk into the boss’s office, fully intent upon demanding a raise. But as we step into the room, our heart races, the sweat runs down the back of our neck, and we chicken out. 

Instead of speaking up for what we want, a raise, we may ask a benign question, “How ‘bout that game last night?,” or “I think the printer needs toner,” and we make our exit. 

We run from the fear in front of us.

Again, every time we do this, the fear wins. It grows stronger, making it more and more difficult to overcome it, and our self esteem drops further into the basement.

The only thing we can change in this cycle is avoidance.

How can we break the pattern?

Facing our fear is the only way to break this negative feedback loop. We all wish there was a magic pill to make fear go away. But there isn’t. It’s even simpler than swallowing a pill, simple, yet difficult to do. But here’s a tip to help you face your fears.

Feel the Fear and Stay in It

Feel the fear, but instead of running away to avoid it, just tell yourself, “This is just anxiety. It’s my amygdala misfiring again.” 

Feel the emotions, but don’t try to fight them, or run away. Just let them do their thing. The fear is real, but it will be real even if you avoid it. You will give it more power if you do.

The only way to conquer a fear is to feel it and remain in the situation until it passes

Don’t leave the boss’s office. Stand there and feel the fear. It might be awkward, but do it. Then dig deep to find the courage to speak up. If you do, the fear loses its stronghold. You win. Your confidence and self-esteem will soar. 

And it doesn’t matter whether or not you got the raise. You faced your fear and it retreated. Doing that once is a major boost. Doing it again will only give you more confidence. It is the only way out of fear and anxiety: through it.

We cannot change fear. We have little control over the things other people do or say. The only thing we can control is our response. We can avoid fear completely, run away, or face it head on. Fear will always be there, but it can be faced, and when we do, fear runs away.

Professional Counseling Can Help!

If you’re still struggling to overcome avoidance, don’t hesitate to call for professional counseling.

If you live in the Raleigh or greater RDU-Wake County area, give us a call. 

We’re RDU Counseling for Change.

We offer mental health counseling for individuals, couples, and families, in person, or via Telehealth. 


If you’d like to read more about Avoidance, here are a couple resources:

The Anxiety Cure: An Eight-Step Program for Getting Well, by Robert L. DuPont, M.D., and Elizabeth DuPont Spence, M.S.W., and Caroline DuPont, M.D.

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