What Are Avoidance Behaviors?

Hiding your face is a safety behavior.
Stop using safety behaviors to protect yourself in social situations. Manuela Larissegger / Getty Images

Avoidance behaviors, in the context of social anxiety disorder (SAD), are things that people do, or don't do to reduce anxiety about being in social situations. These behaviors are problematic because in the long run they only serve to increase fear. Avoidance behaviors can take three different forms: avoidance, escape or partial avoidance.

Avoidance

True avoidance behaviors involve the complete avoidance of the feared social situation.

For example, someone afraid of public speaking might

  • drop a class in which he has to give a speech 
  • change jobs to avoid giving presentations 
  • fail to show up for an event such as a wedding or awards ceremony in which he is expected to speak in front of others

Escape

When total avoidance is impossible, escape behaviors may be used as a means of dealing with feared situations. Escape involves leaving or escaping from a feared social or performance situation. Some examples of escape include

  • leaving a gathering early
  • walking out in the middle of a speech
  • hiding in the restroom during a dinner party

Partial Avoidance

When neither avoidance nor escape are possible, partial avoidance (also known as safety behaviors) may be used to alleviate feelings of anxiety during social or performance situations. Safety behaviors generally limit or control your experience of a situation. Safety behaviors might include such things as

  • avoiding eye contact
  • crossing your arms to hide shaking
  • drinking or doing drugs
  • daydreaming 
  • sitting in the back of a classroom

Avoidance Maintains Anxiety

The problem with avoidance behaviors is that they maintain the symptoms of anxiety. If you always avoid giving speeches, or if you only give speeches without making eye contact, your anxiety about giving a speech will never diminish.

These behaviors prevent you from gathering evidence that disproves your maladaptive beliefs about social situations. For example, if you always leave a party at the first sign of anxiety, you never have the chance to learn that if you stay long enough in the situation, your anxiety will eventually diminish.

Instead of avoiding giving speeches, or only delivering them in a "safe" way, you need exposure to giving speeches without avoiding, escaping or using safety behaviors.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to identify avoidance behaviors and provide exposure to feared situations.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) teaches you how to lessen the impact of your anxious thoughts in perpetuating the cycle of panic and anxiety.

In fact, research has demonstrated that exposure treatment (one component of CBT) for social anxiety disorder will be less effective when a person is using safety behaviors. This suggests that reducing your use of safety behaviors when entering therapy may help to give you a better result.

Five-Minute Solution

Are you looking for a quick way to reduce your avoidance? Draw on the principles of the therapies mentioned above. For example:

If you have the urge to hide in the bathroom at the next party you attend, promise yourself to go back out for at least five minute intervals before you return.

Gradually work you way up to longer sojourns through the party.

If your thoughts turn to

Everyone must think I am awkward and boring

say something to yourself like

That is interesting but it's just a thought. I don't have to let it bother me. That's just what my mind does when I am in these situations.

Baby Steps

Just remember not to jump headfirst into exposure situations after a long period of using safety and avoidance. It's better to gradually work on reducing your use of these behaviors while increasing time spent in situations that cause you anxiety.

Sources:

Antony, MM, Stein, MB. Oxford handbook of anxiety and related disorders. New York: Oxford University Press; 2008.

Hoffman, SG, Otto, MW. Cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2008.

Markway, BG, Markway, GP. Painfully Shy. New York: St. Martin's Press; 2003.

Piccirillo ML, Taylor Dryman M, Heimberg RG. Safety Behaviors in Adults With Social Anxiety: Review and Future Directions. Behav Ther. 2016;47(5):675-687. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2015.11.005.

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