What Are Avoidance Behaviors?

Avoiding what you fear makes your fear grow stronger.
Avoidance only serves to increase anxiety in the long-term.. Getty / Peter Dazeley

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

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, or 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, or 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, or 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.

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.

An effective treatment for SAD, one of the goals of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is to identify avoidance behaviors and provide exposure to feared situations. Another popular treatment for SAD, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) teaches you how to lessen the impact of your anxious thoughts in perpetuating the cycle of panic and anxiety.

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."

Good luck in practicing your avoidance of avoidance behaviors!

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.

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