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Are you using avoidance behaviour?

Are you using avoidance behaviour?
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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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviour and how to overcome it, according to experts.

What is avoidance behaviour?

What is avoidance behaviour?
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If you’re avoiding stressful or socially difficult situations through distractions or by staying away completely, you’re practising avoidance behaviour, 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.

Here are 15 things about social phobia psychologists wish you knew.

Who’s prone to avoidance behaviour?

Who’s prone to avoidance behaviour?
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People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety are especially likely to use avoidance to dodge triggers or potentially harmful environments. Others may practise the behaviour 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.

Learn the 11 steps you should take to heal from a traumatic experience.

The allure of avoidance coping

The allure of avoidance coping
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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 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.

Look out for 8 silent signs stress is making you sick.

The pitfalls of avoidance behaviour

The pitfalls of avoidance behaviour
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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 behaviour 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.

Discover 7 silent signs stress is hurting your relationship.

Signs of avoidance behaviour

Signs of avoidance behaviour
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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.

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Escapism

Escapism
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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 socialising with friends, interacting with loved ones, or even work, the behaviour qualifies as avoidance.

Wishful thinking

Wishful thinking
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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 recognise facts, adapt and change behaviour 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.

Self-isolation

Self-isolation
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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 practise self-care, if you continually avoid social interaction, you may be self-isolating as a way to avoid anxieties or fears.

Learn how to build a self-care plan, according to experts.

Burying your emotions

Burying your emotions
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Have you ever been labelled emotionless or cold in situations? You may be practising 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.

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