What is Avoidance?

Avoidance is a tremendously important and useful survival technique and one that has contributed to keeping our species alive. If at the dawn of time we experimented with nuts and berries and found that after one particular berry we were violently ill or a member of our camp died the sensible and correct thing to do would be to avoid eating that berry again. However, if we were to adopt the avoidance technique with over zealous gusto and decided to avoid all berries and nuts in future we would likely fall ill of malnutrition before long. In summary we need to be selective with this technique, as we should be will all survival techniques as our threats and needs have evolved over time.

The Trouble with Avoidance

Avoidance behaviours are typically defined as actions a person takes to distract or even escape from difficult thoughts and feelings. Avoidance can also be the act of getting involved in an activity or task that is not urgent or essential in order to evade doing something they find difficult or unappealing.

People who struggle with disorders such as panic or anxiety usually have a very finely tuned set of avoidance behaviours that they draw upon in times of need such as; avoiding busy places by only leaving the house at certain times, avoiding feeling exposed by not speaking in certain settings. Those who are keen to avoid for reasons of indifference will also have a reliable skills set when it comes to employing avoidance, the classic example is the teenager who is suddenly interested in tidying their bedroom when they have exams to prepare for. Although avoidance offers us temporary relief from the perceived problem over time it can have a negative impact on numerous aspects of our lives, not least; careers, relationships and hobbies. By allowing avoidance behaviours to become a well-paved pathway in our brains we defer to them more often than is useful and we may find ourselves avoiding career opportunities that challenge us, conversations that make us uncomfortable or experiences that push us outside of our comfort zone. While an easy life is certainly something to be endorsed at times there is an argument that passively moving through our day-to-day lives and reflexively opting for avoidance strategies limits our opportunity to learn and grow.  


Effects of Avoidance

When we activate avoidance what we’re really trying to do is escape feelings of discomfort. However, each time we escape these anxiety-inducing thoughts and feelings by avoiding them, they are actually reinforced. This occurs because the message that the activity we have avoided is unsafe, unappealing or not worth doing is affirmed and in the end we become even more uncomfortable at the thought of the avoided activity.

People who rely on avoidance are often depriving themselves of many experiences, adventures, and personal connections. The other thing to note is that if what we are avoiding causes us stress in the first place it doesn’t mean that the implementation of avoidance techniques eliminates this stress, it just means it is put somewhere else for a little while.

Recognise When It’s Happening

How to Break the Cycle of Avoidance

In order to change any unhelpful behaviour, we must first become aware of when it’s happening. We need to reflect on our day and identify where avoidance was at play and how that situation could have been played out differently. When we have done this we then need to make a plan to break the cycle by activating different behaviour and then execute the plan. These steps help us move away from avoidance and towards new methods.  Avoidance is driven by fear so there is an element of facing fear in order to overcome it.

Steps to Break Avoidance

1.     Identify the task or difficulty you are avoiding (conversation, work task, exercise…).

2.     Think up as many possibly solutions and positive outcomes for completing or overcoming this task or difficulty.

3.     Consider the pros and cons of overcoming vs the pros and cons of avoiding.

4.     Choose one of the solutions you have come up with in step 2.

5.     Carry out the solution plan.

6.     Repeat this as frequently as you can in order to make it more automatic than avoidance.


1.     I don’t want to complete this work/school task

2.     A - I could do it now for 10 minutes and then take a short break and come back to it and that would make it feel more manageable. B – I could ask for help getting it started because actually I’m finding it difficult. C – I can do some other tasks first which will give me the confidence to confirm that I know what I’m doing.

3.     Pros of overcoming= I face my fear, I complete the task, the worry is diminished, I can do this again any other time. Pros of Avoidance = I don’t have to think about it right now, I don’t have to do something I don’t want to do. Cons of overcoming= I need to face my fear/difficulty and I’m scared it will go wrong. Cons of avoiding = My fear/discomfort grows, I will always avoid tasks like these.

4.     Choose option B

5.     Colleague/parents helps me get started on task and I am able to finish it on my own.

6.     Next time I am assigned a difficult task I work through this process again.


Set your self the task this week to check in on all of the things you avoid and see if you can begin by challenging something small and build from there.

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