Bringing Awareness to Avoidance

What is avoidance?  It involves consciously sidestepping challenging or unwanted situations to protect our mental and emotional well-being. While many people are familiar with the idea of avoiding, sometimes it can be difficult to identify what type of avoidant behavior you’re engaging in. Cognitive avoidance, situational avoidance, substitution avoidance, protective avoidance, and somatic avoidance and are all ways in which one can cope with unwanted stressors or anxieties.

Types of Avoidant Behaviors

1. Cognitive Avoidance

To avoid thinking about something, this process could leave your mind blank or full of fantasies and positive thoughts that distract from the thought you’re trying to avoid. This level of avoidance can be intentional or unintentional as your brain may take over the process and move avoidance to the unconscious.

2. Situational Avoidance

Formal presentations, difficult conversations, confrontation with a friend – life is full of challenges, and sometimes we find ourselves in situations that we would rather avoid. Situational avoidance is a common response. Situational avoidance refers to avoiding being in a specific situation or even putting yourself at risk of being in the situation. Situational avoidance could involve a certain environment, a specific individual, or a particular scenario that makes you uncomfortable. These situations could become avoided because of past conflict or the anxiety of future problems. 

Examples include  avoiding the doctor despite feeling sick or avoiding the coffee shop you know is frequented by your ex despite it being your favorite. Situational avoidance is a natural instinct that aims to protect us from potential harm, emotional distress, or overwhelming stress, and can provide us with temporary relief. However, it can also limit personal growth and hinder our ability to face challenges head-on.

3. Substitution Avoidance

Substitution conceals your experience with something you consider to be “better.” 

For example, this process could involve using a “crutch” (alcohol, substances, sex, food) to reduce anxiety. This could also mean using a “prerable” emotion, such as using anger, to inform our response/behaviors as opposed to sadness or worry.

4. Protective Avoidance

During protective avoidance, you may go out of your way to engage in behaviors that offer the perception of safety. Protective avoidance is based on the belief that if you can control your environment with enough safety, there will be nothing to worry about. 

Examples of these behaviors include “checking,” cleaning, and using “good luck” charms.

5. Somatic Avoidance

Stress and anxiety produce a physical response in your body, and somatic avoidance aims to limit those physical responses – even if what you’re doing isn’t particularly stressful or anxiety inducing. That “anxious” feeling may not be pleasant, but this level of avoidance restricts you from doing any fun, exciting, or adventurous activities that may create that same feeling. 

Examples of somatic avoidance include avoiding exercising, thrill rides, or watching scary movies.

Now that you’ve increased your awareness around the ways you potentially engage in avoidance, below are some questions to ask yourself to challenge said avoidance: 

  • What type of avoidance am I engaging in? 
  • Why am I avoiding [this]?
  • How long do I plan to avoid [this]?
  • How does my avoidance make me feel?
  • Who does my avoidance impact? How does my avoidance impact others?
  • Whose idea is it for me to avoid [this]?
  • When was the last time I successfully completed [the behavior] instead of avoiding it?

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