It’s safe to assume that everyone will find this scenario familiar: you are watching an episode of your favorite show, and then another one, and then another one. Meanwhile, you know full well that you have tasks and chores to get done. This is a general example of avoidance behavior, which is a way to manage stress by avoiding difficult thoughts or feelings. When you ignore or delay dealing with a stressful or socially complex situation through constant distractions, you are practicing avoidance behavior, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
This defense mechanism can take on many forms. If you hate public speaking, you may call in sick on the day you have to give a presentation at work. One may also avoid seeing a certain family member by never answering their calls or messages. It's important to understand the difference between avoidance and procrastination. While the latter also means delaying a task, procrastination can be positive. It gives people time to process, promotes creativity, and reduces the chance of being overwhelmed. On the other hand, avoidance is a broader term for refusing to face an issue or task.
People who have general anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to engage in avoidance behavior, but it could happen to anyone at one point in their life. After all, nobody likes to be stressed, and it makes sense for us to try and avoid situations we perceive as negative. However, it is important to recognize when avoidance becomes a pattern and how it can be overcome.
Turning to books, television, movies, or even a bit of harmless daydreaming when we need a little break from reality is fine. This coping strategy was especially prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic when we all had a little bit too much free time on our hands.
Engaging in these escapist pastimes becomes a problem when it takes precedence over socializing with loved ones, working, or even leaving the house. In this case, it qualifies as avoidance behavior.
A person who relies on wishful thinking will often bend reality to interpret facts according to their desires. There is an important difference between wishful thinking and optimism. The latter allows you to recognize reality for what it is and then adapt and change your own behavior to get the best outcome. In other words, you meet challenges with a strategy and work hard to achieve positive results.
Wishful thinking, on the other hand, ignores the facts and gives way to delusions. Instead of planning or acting, a wishful thinker passively hopes that things will turn out for the best.
If you tend to put off meetings with friends or repeatedly turn down invitations for social opportunities, it could be a pattern of avoidance. While it’s vital to take time for yourself from time to time, isolating yourself continually is a sign that you are trying to avoid certain anxieties or fears.
Have you ever been told that you are cold in emotional situations? This kind of stoicism may be emotional restraint to avoid dealing with your feelings. The problem is that when you don’t address your feelings, they can come out in a less than healthy way. For example, this could lead to sudden outbursts of anger or extreme discomfort from minor things.
The next time you are facing a stressful task or situation, take a moment and assess your options. Instead of pretending like the problem doesn't exist, ask yourself, ‘What can I do to positively affect my situation?’ That way, you feel like you have control over what is happening.
For example, if you need to have a difficult conversation with a coworker and you have been putting it off for days, follow these steps. What you can do to actively tackle this task is to make a clear plan of your steps while also recognizing that you feel anxious about it. This could include writing down what you are going to say, deciding on a neutral place to talk, and enlisting the help of another colleague, if necessary.
Another way to think about it is by imagining that you are outsourcing the avoided task to someone else and then writing down clear step-by-step directions for that “person.” Doing so can help you get the psychological distance you need to have more reasonable expectations and the clarity of mind to come up with practical coping tools.
According to mental health experts, engaging in stress-relieving activities before an event can help you approach the situation with calmness. Clinical psychologist Dr. Alice Boyes stresses the importance of finding sustainable stress-relief habits (like yoga, for example) rather than impulsive ones (like going on a vacation).
Another tip is not to let these activities become a distraction from what you need to do or a gateway to avoidance. Instead, use them as prep work - a way to relax and decompress before entering a difficult situation.
Once you understand the personal stressors that trigger avoidance in you, you can start ‘building tolerance’ and mastering skills for handling those specific situations. In other words, get lots of practice in doing the things you find anxiety-inducing. “Start with things that are mildly anxiety-provoking, and work gradually,” says Boyes.
For example, if it is social anxiety that you’re dealing with, start by going somewhere familiar or attending a small gathering of people you know. Then slowly venture out. Remember that baby steps are much bigger than no action at all.
No matter what we do, it’s simply impossible to avoid bad experiences completely, and that’s okay. We need negative experiences to learn and grow. Remember that section about practice and baby steps? The more you avoid, the less practice you get in combating challenging situations. Encountering an anxiety-inducing circumstance or conversation and working through it will make you better prepared and less anxious in the future.
This tip is efficient when you have an important task you have been avoiding for a while. Choose a day and clear your entire schedule. Then make a deal with yourself that once you’ve done the avoided action, the rest of the day is yours to spend however you like.
That doesn’t necessarily mean doing one thing and then spending 90% of your day watching television. The point of having your day cleared out is to do the productive work you’ve been putting off at a relaxed pace. It doesn’t mean the task will suddenly become enjoyable, but you will have the peace of mind to finish it, plus you can look forward to the reward you will give yourself afterward.
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