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Avoidance and it's role in maintaining anxiety

Updated: Apr 18

Anxiety therapy


We've all experienced moments of anxiety in our lives. It's a natural response to stress or perceived threats. However, for some individuals, anxiety takes on a life of its own, becoming a constant, overwhelming presence. One key factor that perpetuates anxiety is avoidance, a defence mechanism that, while initially serving as a coping strategy, can ultimately trap individuals in a cycle of fear and stress. In this blog, we'll explore the concept of avoidance, its role in maintaining anxiety, and strategies to break free from its paralyzing grip.

Understanding Avoidance

Avoidance, in psychological terms, refers to the intentional effort to stay away from situations, places, people, or thoughts that trigger anxiety, discomfort, or distress. While it may provide temporary relief, avoidance can reinforce and exacerbate anxiety over time. It's like putting a band-aid on a wound without treating the underlying infection – it offers short-term relief but doesn't address the root cause.

The Role of Avoidance in Maintaining Anxiety

  1. Negative Reinforcement: Avoidance provides immediate relief from anxiety, reinforcing the idea that the avoided situation is indeed threatening. This "reward" reinforces the belief that avoiding the situation was the right choice, making it more likely to be repeated in the future.

  2. Stagnation: Avoidance keeps individuals stuck in their comfort zones. When we consistently avoid situations that make us anxious, we miss out on opportunities for growth, learning, and personal development. Avoidance fosters stagnation and prevents us from developing essential life skills.

  3. Exaggerated Fear: Avoidance can make the feared situation seem even scarier. Over time, the mind can magnify the perceived threat, making it increasingly challenging to face the avoided situation.

  4. Reduced Coping Skills: Avoidance prevents individuals from learning healthy coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety and stress. As a result, individuals may become more reliant on avoidance as their primary strategy, which ultimately hinders their ability to manage anxiety effectively.

Breaking the Chains of Avoidance

Overcoming avoidance is a critical step in managing and reducing anxiety. Here are some strategies to help break free from its grasp:

  1. Gradual Exposure: Systematic desensitization involves gradually exposing oneself to feared situations or triggers. This process allows individuals to build tolerance and reduce anxiety over time. Start with small, manageable steps and work your way up.

  2. Challenge Cognitive Distortions: Anxiety often involves distorted thinking patterns. Use cognitive-behavioural techniques to identify and challenge irrational thoughts, replacing them with more rational and constructive ones.

  3. Mindfulness and Acceptance: Mindfulness practices can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and emotions without judgment. Accepting these feelings as a normal part of the human experience can reduce the need for avoidance.

  4. Seek Professional Help: A mental health professional, such as a CBT therapist or counsellor, can provide guidance and support in breaking free from avoidance patterns. They can tailor treatment strategies to your specific needs and circumstances.

  5. Set Realistic Goals: Establish achievable goals that push your boundaries without overwhelming you. Gradually increasing your exposure to anxiety-provoking situations will help build confidence in managing them.

  6. Self-Compassion: Be kind and patient with yourself during the process. Overcoming avoidance is a challenging journey, and setbacks are a natural part of the process. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would offer a friend.


Avoidance, while initially serving as a protective mechanism against anxiety, ultimately maintains and exacerbates it. To break free from the paralyzing power of avoidance, individuals must confront their fears gradually, challenge their thought patterns, and seek professional support if needed. By addressing avoidance head-on, you can regain control over your life and reduce the impact of anxiety, leading to a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling life. Remember, you don't have to face this journey alone, and there is help available to guide you towards a brighter, less anxious future.

By Ben Lea, CBT & EMDR Therapist, Congleton, Cheshire.

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