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What is Avoidance Behavior? Examples, Impacts, & How to Build Healthy Coping Strategies

woman with avoidance behaviors in the therapy room

Some of us may be aware that we practice avoidance behaviors, while others may have no idea. After all, isn't it a good idea to avoid stress? Some avoidance behaviors may be beneficial, but there are a number of maladaptive avoidance behaviors that can make things more difficult, or have a negative impact on mental health.

In this article, we'll share more about different types of avoidance behaviors, what puts us at risk for developing avoidance behaviors, and how to stop avoidance behavior when it isn't serving us.

What are Avoidance Behaviors, and How Do They Develop?

Avoidance behaviors are behaviors that attempt to decrease or minimize perceived danger, threat, or even anxiety. What constitutes threat can vary depending on the individual. We are all triggered more or less by different things.

Some avoidance coping strategies can be healthy; for example, if you decide to go no-contact with a toxic ex-friend. However, in some other cases, avoidance behaviors can have a negative impact on your relationships and day-to-day life.

Definition Template (19)-1

Types of Avoidance Behaviors

There are a number of avoidance behaviors, and they can be loosely categorized into five different types.

Situational Avoidance Behaviors

Situational avoidance behavior is when a person avoids places, people, activities, or things that trigger anxiety or stress. It is the most common form of avoidance coping and is commonly seen in people who experience anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Someone with situational avoidance behavior may refuse to ride an elevator, drive over a bridge, or walk in a city.

Cognitive Avoidance Behaviors

Cognitive avoidance behaviors are a type of internal avoidance coping. This involved refusing to think about uncomfortable feelings or distressing topics. An individual may think to themselves, "I'm not going to think about X" and go on with their day. However, in certain forms cognitive avoidance behaviors can become fantasy, dissociation, or toxic positivity.

Some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder can implement this type of avoidance behavior to a point where it becomes chronic worrying or obsessive thoughts and feelings. The individual may deliberately cram their mind with "good luck" phrases, mental rituals, or distracting fantasies to avoid thinking about something they wish to avoid.

Protective Avoidance Behaviors

Protective avoidance behaviors are when the individual attempts to create an environment that protects them from bad feelings and offers a safe inner world. Avoidance strategies in this category may include creating rituals, compulsive cleaning or arranging, and keeping talismans or lucky charms. This type of avoidant coping is also seen often in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Somatic Avoidance Behaviors

Somatic avoidance behaviors involve the individual staying away from anything that can create a physical stress response (rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, tingling in the extremities). These avoidance behaviors may find the person avoiding uncertain situations, thrill rides, excitement, love, and sex.

Substitution Avoidance Behaviors

This type of avoidance behavior can take an internal or external form. It involves swapping an uncomfortable feeling with something that feels more acceptable. For example, instead of feeling sadness or anxiety, you feel anger.

External substitution avoidance behavior uses a crutch to cope with distressing feelings, and can include things like sex, food, drugs, or anything else that can blunt these feelings for a period of time.

Passive vs. Active Avoidance

Within these five categories of avoidance behavior, you will find two types of avoidance: passive and active. Active coping strategies are when you escape anxiety by doing something--for example, taking drugs to alleviate sadness, or arranging objects to avoid anxiety.

Only passive coping strategies use "non-doing" as a means of escaping negative thoughts and feelings. An example of passive avoidance behavior would be to refuse to have sex because it causes the body to function in a way that makes you anxious (somatic avoidance behavior).

How to Overcome Avoidance Behavior

Overcoming avoidance behaviors is possible with the right strategies. Most of us have learned avoidance techniques early, and we can also learn effective coping strategies that are more healthy for stress avoidance.

Take Small Steps

First of all, don't expect that everything will change at once. Start small by learning some effective stress management techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, or journaling. By reducing stress, you may be able to better create healthy habits and avoid a knee-jerk avoidance response.

Develop Better Ways of Communicating About Conflict

Practice communication skills to build self-confidence, and you can often approach coping in a healthier manner.

Recognize When You're Doing It

The good news is that if you realize you are using avoidance coping strategies to manage the body's stress response, you are on your way to finding more proactive strategies. Learn to recognize your body's triggers, and how they make you feel. You can then implement more proactive strategies to manage these feelings.

Learn to Tolerate Uncomfortable Feelings

Exposure therapy can help you overcome avoidance behavior. Build your resilience by allowing yourself to become uncomfortable from time to time.

Identify Active Coping Options

Active avoidance coping strategies can be more effective because they empower the person implementing them. For example, you may work on setting boundaries with a person who you typically avoid due to stress. Working with a mental health therapist can be helpful in learning to recognize your emotional response and offering guidance in developing other coping strategies that break the avoidance cycle.

Can Therapy Help Those Experiencing Avoidance?

Therapy can be an excellent way to help develop better avoidance strategies. First, a therapist may be able to help explain avoidance behavior and where it comes from in your situation. They can help you practice communication skills, offer stress management tools and active coping strategies, and boost self-confidence.

A treatment plan for managing the symptoms of various mental health conditions and overall mental health often involves shifting the emotional avoidance that may exacerbate anxiety, and replacing behaviors with other active coping strategies that are more positive.

Treating Avoidance Coping in Austin, TX

Avoidance coping behaviors are common, but sometimes they can become an issue. If you feel that your avoidance coping behaviors have started to negatively impact your life, there is help available.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, we offer a range of online therapy and in-person appointments that can fit into any schedule, so that you can work with your therapist on creating healthy habits and effective coping strategies.

Give us a call today, and our patient coordinator will help you find the right Austin therapist to offer their expertise and guidance in moving away from maladaptive avoidance coping, learning effective stress management, and increasing mental health overall. 

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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