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Cost #1: Avoidance Keeps Us Anxious

It is one of life’s great ironies.  We go to tremendous lengths to avoid anxiety.  Yet the things we do to avoid anxiety actually keep us anxious.


Say we measure our average anxiety on a scale from 1 to 10.  Over time, why does anxiety remain at 7 or 8 instead of dropping to 3 or 4?  Because excessive avoidance

  • prevents corrective learning and
  • obstructs habituation.


1.  Avoidance Prevents Corrective Learning

Imagine two anxious children who think of school as a scary place.  Monsters may lurk in the corners of hallways, bullies may be waiting to pounce, parents may never be seen again . . . Getting on the bus would not be easy for either of these kids.


But suppose one child goes to school despite her anxiety.  By doing so, she discovers that her scary predictions are false.  Day after day, she arrives safely home without monster encounters.  Day after day, she rarely deals with bullies (and when she does, she deals with them fine).  Over time, a calming discovery arises from the child’s consistent courage:  She is still here and can do this, whether she is anxious or not!


The other anxious child refuses to go to school.  As a result, he does not experience the same anxiety-reducing learning.  Monsters may indeed be waiting, for all he knows, because he is unable to test his worst-case scenarios.  In his mind, the only reason he is safe is because he avoided school.


How can we learn there are no threats in areas we will not go?  And how can we learn we can do something well when we never do it?  By preventing such corrective learning, avoidance preserves anxiety over months, years, and decades.


2.  Avoidance Obstructs “Habituation”

Avoidance also maintains anxiety by obstructing habituation.  Thanks to habituation, unpleasant feelings usually lessen when we are repeatedly exposed to their source.  Imagine a prankster sneaks up and yells “boo!” while we are reading this paragraph.  Would we jump? If our nerves are working, we would.  But what about if he yells “boo!” again a minute later?  And then again?  And then again?  Eventually, we would stop jumping.  Our brain is too efficient to crank out needless responses.


Unfortunately, chronic avoidance can disrupt this positive effect.  Imagine standing near a smelly garbage can. As unpleasant as this may be, the smell would gradually fade.  But what if we escape the odor by holding our noses?  Each time we release our nostrils, we will have a distasteful olfactory experience.  Hold nose –> release –> smell is still there!  Hold nose –> release –> the nasty smell is still there!


Avoidance obstructs habituation in a similar manner.  We can’t get used to something if we prevent ourselves from experiencing it.  Likewise, when we don’t let habituation work by engaging in avoidance, we lose an opportunity for anxiety reduction.


This paradox underpins our dilemma.  We engage in avoidance to escape from anxiety.  Yet by disrupting firsthand learning and habituation, avoidance is the very thing that keeps us anxious.


Dylan M. Kollman, PhD