Why Avoidance Behavior Can Be Harmful

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Avoidance behaviors or avoidance strategies are actions that people take to escape from difficult feelings or thoughts. There are many different types of behaviors that could be classified as avoidant. One example could be a child who does something wrong and blames what happened on an imaginary friend who they think can be punished in their place.

Avoidant behaviors often go together with immaturity, which is why they commonly manifest in children. If there is a possibility of getting in trouble or having to do something that they don't want to do, children may exhibit avoidant behavior.

As adults, we’re often expected to face our fears and conquer them. Those who still engage in avoidance as adults might be living with an anxiety disorder or other mental health conditions, and avoidance is one of the ways that the disorder or condition can manifest.

Is avoidance behavior impacting your life?

The downsides of avoidance behavior

When you're no longer a child, you presumably no longer have a parent to force you to do the things necessary to live a responsible lifestyle. If you avoid doing necessary things to keep the trajectory of your life moving forward, it’s possible your life will stall. There are four types of avoidant behavior: 

  • Situational avoidance
  • Protective avoidance
  • Cognitive avoidance
  • Somatic avoidance 
  • Substitution avoidance

Situational avoidance

Avoiding particular people or situations that make you feel anxious is called situational avoidance.   For instance, let's say that you are engaging in avoidant behavior because you have social anxiety or social phobia. You may not want to leave the house because you are so anxious or fearful. Even if you schedule a job interview, you might feel too anxious to attend the interview. This could cause you to miss out on that opportunity, which could cause financial issues down the line. This chain of events can be mapped back to your avoidant behavior and not conquering your fears and are often a part of an avoidance cycle. 

Protective avoidance

When an individual believes that they can control their physical environment so that they feel a false sense of safety from a perceived threat, it is called protective avoidance. In more serious cases avoidance behavior may be connected to obsessive compulsive disorder. For example, a person who is afraid of germs may avoid going to the restroom in public. They also may clean things repeatedly, even though the surface is no longer dirty, this can get in the way of everyday life and cause a person to change how they live to accommodate their disorder. 

Cognitive avoidance

For some, a coping strategy is to simply stop thinking about something if it is hard to think about. For example, if a loved one dies and you can't face the thought of living without them, you may act as though they're alive and have merely gone on a trip for a few days. You may stay in the house, convinced that you need to be there to greet them when they get back. Consequently, you won't go to work, and you may even lose your job. Maybe you're so intent on clinging to the idea that your loved one is still alive that you tell everyone that it was a mistake, and it was someone else who was buried in their place. 

This kind of avoidant behavior can cause myriad problems for your personal well-being as well as your relationships with others.

Somatic avoidance

Somatic avoidance occurs when a person doesn’t like how their body feels when feeling a particular way, like anxious, nervous, or angry. These individuals may avoid things that cause their body to produce a response. For example, they may avoid rollercoasters, scary movies, or exercising to avoid the feelings that come with those activities. 

Substitution avoidance

For some, rather than face uncomfortable emotions or uncomfortable thoughts, they substitute the feeling for something less healthy such as a different emotion or a substance. Substitution can occur internally or externally, as an example, a person may internally substitute anger for sadness, or externally, they may turn to alcohol to replace feelings of sadness. For young adults, substitution avoidance may lead to dangerous situations as they may try to treat underlying issues or difficulties with a substance. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Avoidance can make life difficult

It is important to proceed delicately with people who exhibit avoidant behavior. It’s not okay to yell at them or tell them to “snap out of it” just because you may be feeling frustrated with their behavior. 

People who engage in avoidance behaviors are often in pain or are burying emotions, that is the reason they don't want to face a truth that seems self-evident or do something they find to be so upsetting.

They may be mentally fragile and trying to bully them into getting better or using peer pressure could easily cause them to withdraw even further.

The real challenge with avoidance is that it doesn't help you over the long term any better than it does in the short term. When it's happening, you might feel a sense of relief because you've reconciled what you are doing in your mind and justifying your physical response. But eventually you're going to be confronted with what it is that frightens you more and more urgently. This has the potential to lead to increased anxiety and negative self-talk, which forces you to fall further down the rabbit hole and may lead to serious conditions such as depression.

If you find yourself engaging in a series of avoidant behaviors, it is important to develop a plan to get well again and overcome avoidance behavior.

Treatment for avoidant behaviors

Learning to recognize avoidant behaviors is an important first step in overcoming avoidance behaviors. If you can see that what you're doing (or, rather, not doing) is harmful, it is often easier to begin a treatment regimen and seek professional support. It might also take the intervention of family or friends to get you motivated enough to take action, and that’s okay. Try to remind yourself that they are only trying to help you and resist the urge to lash out at them even if you’re feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

Therapy is also an effective way to help manage your avoidance behaviors. You can speak to a qualified mental health professional and, together, figure out what may be causing your avoidant behaviors as well as coping skills or coping strategies. It could be a single thing that has led you to get to where you are, or it might be a combination of factors. In either case, talking about your feelings can be helpful because keeping things bottled up can cause them to fester and negatively affect your life.

Medication

You might explore medication to help manage severe avoidance behaviors and any underlying conditions. There are various anxiety medications that can help address avoidance and get yourself back to a healthy state of mind. Avoidance may worsen if left untreated, so talk with your doctor to determine if medication might be right for you.

Self-help books

Self-help books can also be a way to help you get to a healthier place. Some books may teach breathing exercises to help relax you, some may focus on confronting your fears, and some even speak directly to avoidance behaviors.

While these books can be helpful, it is recommended that you pursue professional help as well. The combination of the two things together will likely be more impactful than reading alone. While it can be difficult to ask for help, there is no shame in reaching out to a therapist. You have a much better chance of getting positive results if you work with someone who can act as your cheerleader and give you further advice if you get stuck somewhere during the recovery process.

Do you need to speak to someone about your avoidant behavior?

Is avoidance behavior impacting your life?

If you are having trouble with avoidant behavior or other emotional disorders, or if you know someone who is, consider speaking to a medical professional. Therapy is a great way to learn more about yourself and get a neutral, third-party perspective. Online counseling is becoming more and more popular, and research shows it is just as effective as traditional counseling sessions. This study, conducted by Brigham Young University researchers, found that technology-based therapy provides other added benefits including, “lower cost, no travel time,  no waitlists, and trackable progress.”

Counselor reviews

On BetterHelp, you can get matched with a counselor within 48 hours based on your specific needs and preferences. You can easily connect with a  real human being from a smartphone, tablet, or computer and communicate in a variety of ways, including live phone, video, and chat sessions, as well as messaging. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

“Krisha has a gentle balance of grace and truth. I came into counseling a bit gun shy of what she might say about what I needed help with. Immediately she set me at ease and helped me focus on what was important and where I might want to reconsider my thought patterns. I made more progress in the time I had working with her than I had in years and years before that. I could not be more grateful for her work with me. I am finally starting to find freedom from some things that have followed me for over thirty years.”

“Nadirah is AWESOME. She is a very attentive, active listener. She has helped me uncover patterns and come up with solutions and tools to move forward in varying solutions. I highly recommend her!”

Takeaway

Avoidance is seldom a good thing, and once you fall into the habit, it can be hard to break. However, there are effective treatments for avoidant behavior. Psychotherapy and medications can potentially help you gain more autonomy over your life and overcome avoidant tendencies. 

Target disruptive behavior in therapy
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