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Avoidance, Avoidance, Avoidance

Avoidance, avoidance, avoidance.  Most roads in our dilemma lead back to this behavior.  But before avoidance becomes a problem, it starts as an inclination: a strong, ingrained tendency to avoid anxiety.


This avoidant tendency is not a real surprise.  Experiencing anxiety is clearly unpleasant.  And humans are not the biggest fans of unpleasantness.


We are also innately skilled at steering clear of discomfort by distancing ourselves from its source.  Instructions are not required when our hands touch hot objects.  The avoidance of pain is intuitive.


Yet few feelings inspire avoidance as strongly as anxiety — this keyed-up sense of dread, this uneasy apprehension.  We are naturally inclined to recoil from it as a matter of reflex.


Our avoidant tendency, like anxiety itself, arose from evolution.  Back when cavemen roamed the Earth, anxiety was triggered by actual dangers that could and should be avoided.  Running into tigers.  Running out of food.  Ending up isolated and alone.  These were the threats that haunted our ancestors, and it indeed made sense to avoid them.


And how did our predecessors handle the process of avoiding threats?  By avoiding anxiety!  When a creature avoids anxiety, it also avoids the threat that triggers it.  By avoiding the anxiety evoked by the tiger, our ancestors avoided the tiger.


avoidance as adaptive


This sequence of “experience anxiety –> avoid anxiety –> live to fight another day” is older than any living species, and served us humans very well in our natural history.  Avoiding anxiety made good sense when it was triggered by avoidable threats.


In fact, avoiding anxiety is still very wise — when it is evoked by threats that can and should be avoided.  We would probably feel anxious, for example, if we found ourselves in an abusive relationship.  Or walking in the middle lane of a busy highway.  Avoiding anxiety in these scenarios helps us escape from real hazards.


So let’s be clear.  There are certainly times when it makes sense to engage in avoidance.  There are definitely times where we should avoid anxiety to escape from the escapable threats that evoke it.


But there are other times — many, many other times — when avoiding anxiety is not the solution to our problems.  It is the problem itself.



Dylan M. Kollman, PhD