Avoidance Behavior maintains your anxiety

Written by Lise Kryger. Posted in Anxiety, Blog

There is a lot that contributes to your anxiety. Do you know that your behavior can help maintaining the anxiety?

AvoidanceWhat is avoidance behavior?

When I experienced my first anxiety attack, back in my teenage year, I was not aware that it was an anxiety attack. I thought it was me who could no longer keep a straight face and had lost all control of myself. I felt everyone was looking at me because I showed weakness and thought they had never seen anything like it. I was ashamed and did most of all want to escape. If it was possible I would have wiped my experience free from everyone’s memorys. The experience in itself was physically but also mixed with an intense sense of social shame.

Since I could not erase the memory and history from either them or myself, I could not forget the incident. The thought of ​​the experience could get my heart racing and my body to shake and my thoughts were in constantly focus on of how I could avoid losing control again. At that time I did not know strategies for how I could deal with the anxiety. Therefore my immediate reaction was to control myself even more. That is, suppress my feelings, my sadness, anger and irritation, hide my insecurity and shyness. The natural reaction was to tighten up even more in my hands, arms, legs and stomach. Even my smile muscles were tense.

My reaction was natural because it was the only way I knew how I could cope with the feelings. But it did not work particularly well. In fact, I put myself under further pressure and led therefore to that the anxiety quickly turned back.

How can avoidance behavior contribute to maintain anxiety?

Over a few months the anxiety increased explosively because the actions I did worsened the anxiety, instead of facilitating it. Since my attempts to control myself failed and I felt I lost self-control more and more I began to consider what the problem was. Was it the people I was with, which made ​​me feel so anxious? Or was it the place I that made it? Was it going to birthday parties that was dangerous. Why was I so afraid? I did not know! I felt a strong desire to avoid places, situations and people that reminded me of the times where the anxiety attacks had taken place.

But I could not figure out how say yes or say no. I did not know how leave a party unless I was the last. I did not like to answer the phone to think if someone asked me if I wanted to go to somewhere, I could not say it as it was. I was double bonded. I could not be in situations due to anxiety and I could not say no and avoid situations. But some situations I had great luck with avoiding. I could avoid taking my dream education which was to study psychology, I biked to school instead of taking the bus, I pretended I was sick when my anxiety reacted too strongly. I developed avoidance behavior.

Sometimes, I had to expose myself to what I was afraid of, but because I knew no exposure in graduated processes, I experienced often the anxiety so strong and at the same time suppressed that it only worsened my fear of being in the situation. In other words – I was overexposed.

Not until I, many years later, sat down for a visitation meeting of what was then called Jysk Phobia School, I was told that the more I avoided the anxiety, the more I  “fed anxiety.” When I avoid anxious situations, I do not learn that it is safe, and that it is my brain (amygdala) and my thoughts that play me a trick. My experience told me that even though I exposed myself to anxious situations, my anxiety was still on the same level. It did not get less – only worse! So how could it be that I should approach the anxious situations – and how?

How to change avoidance behavior?

I had learned that I was no less anxious, whether I avoided the anxiety, or confronted the anxiety. A course, at phobia school for 3 months, in 2011, taught me what it was I needed to understand. Anxiety-filled situations must not be avoided, – they must be examined and challenged and tested. Graduated.

You can access the anxiety in several ways. This is what I had tried. Most of it worked – but just not quite enough.

  • Biological-genetic: I had tried medicine therapy – it did help, the anxiety always returned after withdrawal. I also tried all sorts of herbal medicine and alternative therapy. The medicine put a damper and made ​​me not care, but it did not remove the causes or give me insight into what has maintained and fed the anxiety.
  • Thoughts: maxims and automatic thoughts restructured (see also Anxiety Worksheets) – works well along the way, but can’t stand alone.
  • Emotionally therapy, psychotherapy, cognitive psychotherapy, body therapy, dream therapy, relaxation and therapy, yoga, ACT, mindfulness, etc., etc. gave me understanding and insight into myself. Taught me to work on myself, recognize, accept and act in accordance with myself and my needs.

What was left? Exposure! Graduated exposure. Action. Proactivity. Taking a chance without getting my anxiety overexposed. Exposure was the last dreaded part, but the only way for me to get rid of my advoidance behaviour and anxiety. I have learned that if I choose the exposure myself, it can be fun and give me the greatest satisfaction.

I can’t think myself out of  avoidance behavior. I avoid the things I’m afraid of and that makes me remain in the belief that it is the reason why I feel anxious. But if I challenge my anxiety, with small steps, small successes and small developments at the time, I grow in faith and confidence in myself. I can with exposure convince my brain (amygdala) to understand that the situation must re-interpreted differently. With my thoughts and logical sense  I can explain myself why I get anxious, and separate myself from the situation.

When I say yes to do something, even though I know that I will get anxious, I send a signal that anxiety is not dangerous. That I am able to cope with the situation. I’m going to take care of myself and know how far I can go so that I do not feel overexposed. I must experience where my limits are and know when to say stop and say yes (thats what the therapy taught me).

I still have situations which I avoid. But I can clearly feel that when I avoid a situation which is not in accordance with my needs or wants, but because of anxiety – I worsen the anxiety. Its because I am getting out of the wrong track which I must get back from again. As soon as I turn the focus into challenge and exposure, I’m on the right track again. I haven’t reached the goal yet, but I am on the way.

Do you avoid situations, places and other things because you get anxious just by the thought?

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Lise Kryger

Owner and founder of Voiceofanxiety.com and Slipangsten.dk.

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