In the United States, anxiety disorders affect a staggering number of adults, with more than 40 million individuals, or 19.1% of the population, grappling with psychological avoidance conditions in the past year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Alarmingly, this statistic only accounts for those who sought professional help and received an official diagnosis, leaving countless others silently dealing with everyday anxiety.
While anxiety itself is a common mental health condition, it’s not the anxiety that holds us back—it’s our response to it. Many individuals react to stress and anxiety with a behavior known as psychological avoidance. Here, we delve into what psychological avoidance entails and explore strategies to combat it.
Understanding Psychological Avoidance
Psychological avoidance refers to a response to perceived threats that, while providing temporary relief, ultimately yields negative consequences.
Dr. Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, coined this term and identifies three common signs of psychological avoidance: retreating, reacting, and remaining.
- Retreating: Rather than facing anxiety head-on, individuals may choose to retreat as a form of escape. This can manifest as consuming alcohol to numb everyday stresses or feigning illness to avoid a daunting work presentation.
- Reacting: Reacting involves responding impulsively and emotionally to anxiety-triggering situations, often in a defensive manner. For instance, someone might become confrontational during a meeting if they feel attacked.
- Remaining: This is akin to the “freeze” response to anxiety, where individuals choose to stay in uncomfortable situations, such as unhealthy relationships or draining jobs, in the hope that things will improve.
Marques asserts that understanding and addressing psychological avoidance can be instrumental in managing anxiety effectively.
Strategies to Combat Psychological Avoidance
Dr. Luana Marques offers valuable strategies in an article for CNBC Make It to confront and manage psychological avoidance:
1. Addressing Retreating:
- Identify Underlying Fears: Instead of retreating, Marques recommends identifying the thoughts or fears driving anxiety. This introspection involves asking questions such as, “What data do I have to back this up?” or “What would my best friend advise in this situation?” This empirical evidence can help challenge and alter harmful mindsets.
2. Tackling Reacting:
- Pause and Breathe: Reacting impulsively to anxiety-provoking situations can exacerbate stress. Marques suggests taking a step back and, importantly, a few deep breaths before responding. This moment of reflection enables a more measured and thoughtful approach to discomfort.
- Approach Discomfort: Instead of trying to eliminate discomfort, Marques recommends approaching it. This approach involves recognizing that discomfort is a natural part of life and striving to understand it rather than avoiding it. By facing discomfort, individuals can learn to manage it more effectively.
3. Overcoming Remaining:
- Identify Core Values: Rather than convincing oneself that an uncomfortable situation will inevitably improve, Marques advocates identifying personal values. Understanding what truly matters enables individuals to take small steps daily toward aligning their lives with those values.
The prevalence of anxiety disorders in the U.S. underscores the importance of addressing and managing anxiety effectively. While anxiety is common, it is how we respond to it that significantly impacts our well-being.
Psychological avoidance, characterized by behaviors like retreating, reacting, and remaining, can hinder personal growth and well-being.
By understanding these avoidance patterns and implementing strategies such as introspection, pausing, and approaching discomfort, individuals can build resilience and better manage anxiety.
Overcoming psychological avoidance is a crucial step toward achieving emotional and mental well-being, empowering individuals to lead more fulfilling lives.