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Passive Versus Active Avoidance

Most anxiety problems, we have seen, are really avoidance problems — and the thing we are trying to avoid is anxiety itself.  Observing our dilemma from a high level, we do this in two different ways. By

  • not engaging in behaviors that increase anxiety (passive avoidance), and
  • engaging in behaviors that decrease anxiety (active avoidance).


Passive avoidance means avoiding by non-doing, or escaping anxiety by not doing things that bring us into its company.  I think of this as the classic form of avoidance, because it is what we usually have in mind when we use the word “avoidance.”


Picture anxiety as one positively charged magnet and yourself as another.  At times, anxiety repels us from situations where it appears.  If work makes us anxious, we avoid going to work.  If a conversation is anxiety-provoking, we avoid the conversation.  This is passive avoidance.


Active avoidance is another way of avoiding anxiety.  Unlike passive avoidance, active avoidance isn’t about not doing things.  It is about actively doing things in an attempt to escape from anxious feelings.


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) provides a good example.  Some people with OCD wash their hands 100 times per day, at two minutes per wash.  That is over three hours of handwashing, which exceeds the standards of hygiene!


Why, then, would we wash our hands until they are raw and chapped?  Because this behavior is an active form of avoidance, reducing our anxiety briefly but dramatically.


hand washing


On the surface, there are many forms of avoidance.  Some forms are passive, where we avoid anxiety by not doing things.  Other forms are active, where we avoid anxiety by doing things.  As we’ll see in upcoming entries, however, all forms of avoidance are driven by two common factors: (a) negative reinforcement and (b) the non-occurrence of negative outcomes (NONO).



Dylan M. Kollman, PhD