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The Anxiety Tap Dance

Imagine reading an advertisement on a late-December day: “Participants Wanted — Paid Experiment.”  Finding ourselves tight on cash after holiday shopping, we decide to go sign up.  We are greeted by a researcher when we arrive at the facility, who attaches an electrical device to our arms.  At random times throughout the day, the researcher tells us that the device will deliver a painful-but-harmless shock.


Then she reveals the important part: There is a secret behavior that instantly turns the shock off.  The researcher will not say what it is, however. It  might be standing on our heads, spinning in circles, or squawking like a chicken.  The shock-deactivating behavior could be any action.  The point of the experiment is to see how fast we find it.


A couple hours later, we receive our first shock: buzzzzzzzzzz!  Not a pleasant experience.


We first attempt to turn off the shock by clapping our hands, but the shock keeps shocking us.  Then we try snapping our fingers, which also does not work.  Buzzzzzzzzzzzz!  Finally, in a spirit of desperation, we stop everything and do a halfhearted tap dance on the sidewalk.  And it makes the shock turn off!  Phew!


But it is not long before the shock reactivates.  Buzzzzzzzzzzzz!  This time, though, we know what to do: tippetty, tip, tap . . . tippety tip tap.  We go right back to tap dancing, more energetically this time. And the shock turns off again.  Double phew!


By the third shock encounter, we are skilled at turning it off.  We really commit to tap dancing at this point, doing our best to look like Fred Astaire.


This cycle continues the rest of the afternoon.  Buzzzzzzz! –> tap dance –> shock turns off –> phew! . . . Buzzzzzzz! –> tap dance –> shock turns off –> phew!  Before we know it, we tap dance the day away in the name of avoiding a feeling.


This is the hidden motive behind most forms of avoidance.  First and foremost, avoidance is not about getting away from things it the world.  It is about getting away from anxiety itself.  Avoidance takes on many forms, but all serve this common function.  We engage in avoidance to minimize the length, strength, and frequency of our encounters with anxiety.  We engage in avoidance, whether we know it or not, to reduce our experience of anxiousness.



Dylan M. Kollman, PhD