We all have our own methods and reasons to use avoidance as a coping skill. Still, most of us can also identify that using avoidance to reduce anxiety in the short term can also prolong our negative emotional experiences around the thing we are avoiding. What is less discussed, however, is that avoidance itself can actually cause and worsen the anxieties we seek to reduce.
Even if we never come into contact with the object of our anxieties, our mere avoidance of the things, people, or circumstances we feel anxious about can trigger a positive feedback loop in our brains that causes anxiety to grow. This feedback loop can exist in the absence of any actual interaction with the subject of our anxieties, since our brains are not especially skilled at discerning real threats from imagined ones. In other words, our avoidance reactions to something that makes us anxious is enough evidence for our brains to reinforce the validity of that anxiety. Our brains treat the future situations and imagined outcomes we avoid as real and present dangers in the context of our heightened anxieties around them.
The relief our brains feel when we avoid a future situation further reinforces the “realness” of our anxieties and the usefulness of our avoidance. This process is exacerbated by the fact that avoidance prevents exposure to evidence that might contradict any anxiety-fueled predictions of the future. Additionally, our brains can develop the false belief that our anxious and avoidant behaviors actually helped to prevent a negative outcome.
The habit of avoidance is developed through a neurobiological process that involves the interaction between the amygdala, a portion of the brain critical for learning about aversive stimuli, and the striatum, which is involved in reward-related processing. Through this avoidance-learning process, the brain essentially wires itself to favor avoidance reactions in the face of fear-inducing stimuli. To overcome our avoidance, we must retrain our brain’s neural pathways that have formed through the reinforcement of our avoidant behaviors.
One way to rewire our brain’s learned avoidance responses is through exposure therapy, which is a proven method of treatment for anxiety. According to the model, effective treatment of avoidance (and anxiety in general) requires the activation of the brain’s “fear structure.” In other words, we have to practice putting ourselves in situations where anxiety and avoidance might arise. Activating the brain in this way creates opportunities for new information about safety to compete with existing beliefs. In my next blog post, I’ll get more into detail about how you can utilize techniques from exposure therapy in your daily life to build your confidence and break through your anxious-avoidant behaviors.