What Are the Types of Anxiety Disorders?
Symptoms, Triggers, and Evidence-Based Treatment Options
- Avoidance only temporarily relieves anxiety but worsens it long-term by preventing new learning.
- The anxiety-avoidance cycle is self-perpetuating – anxiety triggers avoidance which reinforces anxiety.
- Avoidance can severely restrict functioning, leading to depression, loss of independence, and damaged relationships.
- Personality traits, mental health conditions, past trauma, and other factors can make someone prone to avoidance.
- Avoidance is treatable through techniques like exposure therapy, CBT, mindfulness, and facing fears gradually with professional guidance.
What Is Avoidance Behaviour?
Imagine avoiding leaving your home for weeks out of fear of having a panic attack in public. This prison-like isolation is a reality for over 600,000 Canadians suffering from agoraphobia.
Avoidance behaviours are common among 1 in 5 Canadians with an anxiety disorder. When anxiety strikes, our instinct tells us to avoid discomfort. But paradoxically, avoidance only provides temporary relief while perpetuating anxiety over the long haul.
Avoidance can severely restrict functioning and quality of life. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, over 80% of people with a phobia exhibit avoidance behaviours, and 72% with social anxiety disorder report extensive avoidance.
The good news is avoidance behaviours are treatable. With professional support using techniques like, cognitive-behavioural therapy or exposure therapy, those suffering can break free from avoidance’s grip.
This article will explore the psychology behind avoidance, its unhealthy cycle, who’s prone, and most importantly – how to overcome it.
What’s behind avoidance behaviours?
Avoidance behaviours have several root causes that drive people to avoid situations or things that make them anxious:
- Fear of Failure or Rejection: The fear of failing or rejection can lead individuals to avoid situations where they might be judged or evaluated. This can include avoiding job interviews, social gatherings, or personal relationships.
- Traumatic Experiences: Past traumas can lead to avoidance of situations reminiscent of those traumatic events. For example, a person in a car accident might avoid driving or even riding in a car.
- Anxiety Disorders: Specific anxiety disorders, such as social or generalized anxiety disorders, often manifest in avoidance behaviours. Avoidance is a coping mechanism to prevent exposure to anxiety-inducing situations.
- Low Self-Esteem: A lack of confidence in one’s abilities or self-worth can lead to avoidance of challenges or opportunities. This can result in missed chances for growth and fulfillment.
- Perfectionism: The desire to do everything perfectly can lead to avoidance of tasks or responsibilities where perfection might not be achievable. This can hinder productivity and personal development.
- Phobias: Intense fears or phobias can lead to avoidance of specific objects, animals, or situations. For example, someone who fears heights might avoid tall buildings or flying.
- Health Concerns: Physical or health issues can lead to avoidance of certain foods, activities, or environments. This can sometimes escalate into hypochondriasis, where the fear of illness dominates a person’s life.
9 Examples of Avoidance Behaviour
Avoidance behaviour manifests in various ways, depending on the individual’s fears, anxieties, or underlying issues. Here are nine common examples that many people might recognize in themselves or others:
- Avoiding Social Situations: People might avoid parties, gatherings, or even one-on-one meetings due to social anxiety or fear of judgment.
- Procrastinating on Tasks: Putting off tasks or responsibilities, especially those perceived as challenging or unpleasant, is a common form of avoidance.
- Avoiding Medical Appointments: Fear of bad news or discomfort with medical procedures might lead someone to skip regular check-ups or necessary medical care.
- Refusing to Drive or Fly: Specific phobias, such as a fear of flying or driving, can lead to avoidance of these modes of transportation, even when necessary or convenient.
- Avoiding Conflict: Some individuals avoid confrontations or difficult conversations, fearing anger, rejection, or other negative reactions.
- Avoiding Certain Foods or Activities Due to Health Fears: An excessive concern about health might lead to unnecessary avoidance of certain foods, activities, or environments.
- Avoiding Relationships: Fear of rejection, commitment, or vulnerability might lead someone to avoid romantic relationships or close friendships.
- Avoiding Work or School: Anxiety about performance, fear of failure, or other underlying issues might lead to avoidance of work responsibilities or academic pursuits.
- Avoiding Places Associated with Past Trauma: A person who has experienced trauma might avoid places, people, or situations that are reminders of that traumatic event.
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Types of Avoidant Behaviours
Avoidance behaviours can be categorized into different types, each with unique characteristics and underlying motivations. Here’s a closer look at some common types of avoidance:
This involves avoiding specific situations or environments that trigger anxiety, such as social events, driving, flying, crowded areas, etc. Situational avoidance provides immediate safety but reinforces fears.
This refers to avoiding physical sensations like increased heart rate, sweating, dizziness, etc., that accompany panic or anxiety. Avoiding only worsens alarm around benign bodily sensations.
Cognitive avoidance refers to the mental strategies that block out or ignore thoughts, memories, or distressing feelings. This might include suppressing memories of a painful event or denying the reality of a challenging situation.
This involves avoiding perceived dangers to stay safe and protect oneself. For example, avoiding perceived contaminated objects or unsafe areas. But it reinforces unrealistic fears.
Rather than directly avoiding something, people substitute an alternate behaviour to avoid discomfort, like taking sedatives before flying rather than avoiding flying altogether.
The Anxiety & Avoidance Cycle
Anxiety and avoidance fuel each other in a self-perpetuating cycle that maintains and worsens anxiety disorders:
- Triggering Event: An event or situation triggers feelings of anxiety or fear. This could be anything from a social gathering to a phobia like heights.
- Avoidance Behavior: In response to anxiety, the individual engages in avoidance behaviour. This might include physically avoiding a place or situation or mentally avoiding thoughts or feelings.
- Short-Term Relief: Initially, avoidance brings relief from anxiety. By avoiding the feared situation, the immediate feelings of anxiety are reduced.
- Reinforcement of Avoidance: The short-term relief reinforces the avoidance behaviour. Because it provides a temporary escape from discomfort, the individual is more likely to repeat the avoidance in the future.
- Long-Term Consequences: Over time, avoidance can lead to more significant problems. It can limit opportunities, hinder relationships, and reduce overall quality of life. Additionally, it doesn’t allow the individual to learn that the feared situation may not be as threatening as perceived.
- Increased Anxiety: As avoidance continues, it can increase anxiety about the avoided situation. The lack of exposure prevents the individual from learning to cope with the anxiety, and the fear may grow.
- Continuation of the Cycle: The increased anxiety leads to further avoidance, and the cycle continues.
This cycle explains how anxiety drives avoidance, but avoidance maintains the anxiety or makes it worse. Breaking the cycle with therapy allows learning that feared situations may not be so threatening after all.
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Who’s Prone to Avoidance Behaviour?
- Individuals with Anxiety Disorders: People diagnosed with anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder, or specific phobias, often exhibit avoidance behaviours as a coping mechanism.
- History of Trauma: Those who have experienced traumatic events may develop avoidance behaviours to prevent reminders or triggers associated with the trauma.
- Personality Traits: Certain personality traits, such as high levels of neuroticism or introversion, may predispose an individual to avoidance behaviours.
- Childhood Experiences: Early life experiences, including overprotective parenting or exposure to highly critical environments, may contribute to developing avoidance patterns later in life.
- Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions: Avoidance behaviours may also be present in individuals with other mental health conditions, such as depression or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
- Cultural and Social Factors: Cultural norms and societal pressures can influence avoidance behaviours. For example, societal stigmatization of mental health issues may lead some individuals to avoid seeking help.
- Genetic Factors: Some research suggests that a predisposition to anxiety and avoidance behaviours may have a genetic component.
Overcoming Avoidance Behaviour - 5 Examples
- Facing a Fear of Public Speaking through Gradual Exposure: John avoided presentations at work and turned down every speaking opportunity due to an intense fear of public speaking. He realized this fear was limiting his career advancement. John planned to gradually confront his fear through therapy by joining a local Toastmasters group to observe. After attending meetings for a month just watching others speak, he felt ready to participate in the smaller, informal table topic discussions. With his therapist’s encouragement, John slowly worked up to delivering a 5-minute prepared speech in front of the Toastmasters audience. These small successes built his confidence until finally, after 9 months, he could volunteer to give his first major presentation at work.
- Utilizing Mindfulness to Overcome Social Avoidance: Alicia skipped parties, meetings, and work events because she feared being judged by others. This social isolation left her feeling depressed. Alicia’s therapist taught her mindfulness techniques to practice anytime she felt anxious about attending a social situation. Focusing on her breathing and bodily sensations instead of her anxious thoughts taught her to become more present and grounded when faced with social interactions. Over several months, her mindfulness practice enabled Alicia to attend more gatherings and have more meaningful conversations. She began to realize most people were not judging her critically after all.
- Replacing Negative Self-Talk to Combat Avoidance of New Opportunities: Marcus tended to avoid any new opportunities at work for fear he wasn’t qualified or would fail. He turned down projects, stretch assignments, and networking events that could help advance his career. In therapy, Marcus worked on identifying the negative self-talk that led to this avoidance, like “I’m not good enough” and “I’ll just make a fool of myself.” He consciously replaced these anxious thoughts with more positive ones like “I’m capable of learning new skills” and “My abilities will grow through new experiences.” This empowering self-talk allowed Marcus to take on more challenges at work and even build his professional network.
- Building Flexibility & Tolerance through Travel: Sarah tended to avoid any unfamiliar or unpredictable situations in life. She planned out every minute of her day to avoid discomfort. This year, she decided to push her boundaries by planning a weekend trip to a city she’s never visited before. Sarah was forced to navigate new streets, try different foods, and adapt to new environments without an extensive routine. Learning to embrace some uncertainty and spontaneity increased Sarah’s tolerance for unpredictability. She returned more open to new experiences and less fearful when plans changed.
- Seeking Professional Help for Avoidance of Traumatic Memories: After a traumatic car accident, Diego avoided driving or even riding in other cars. He also suppressed any memories or discussions about the accident to avoid triggering anxiety. With the help of a therapist specializing in PTSD, Diego was able to slowly process the traumatic event in a safe, supportive environment. Talking through the experience extinguished some of the associated fear. His therapist also used EMDR therapy to reduce distress around the traumatic memories. After months of professional support, Diego regained the confidence to practice driving again.
Dangers of Chronic Avoidance
While avoidance may seem like an easy short-term solution for anxiety, ongoing chronic avoidance can lead to significant psychological, physical, and lifestyle consequences:
- Reinforced Anxiety – Avoidance prevents new learning that can counteract fears. Anxiety continues to intensify over time.
- Narrowing World – Avoidance often generalizes to more aspects of life. The individual’s world shrinks as they withdraw further.
- Depression – Research shows chronic avoidance is associated with depression due to isolation and restricted activities.
- Decreased Independence – Relying on avoidance for coping can reduce self-efficacy and ability to handle challenges.
- Physical Effects – Chronic stress from sustained anxiety can weaken the immune system and lead to other health issues.
- Job and Relationship Impacts – Avoidance behaviours can negatively affect career, academic, and relationship success.
- Substance Abuse – Some turn to alcohol or drugs to numb anxiety when avoiding triggers becomes untenable. This brings its own problems.
The takeaway is that while avoidance offers immediate relief from anxiety, it worsens it over time. Tackling avoidance through gradual exposure and facing fears is needed to achieve lasting confidence and freedom.
Avoidance behaviour can significantly impact mental health, leading to conditions like anxiety disorders and depression. It can also reinforce fears and create a cycle of avoidance.
While avoidance behaviour is not a mental illness in itself, it is a characteristic of several mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders and depression.
Yes, avoidance behaviour can be treated. Therapies like CBT, exposure therapy, mindfulness, and meditation can help individuals overcome avoidance behaviour.
No matter what you are struggling with, we are here for you.
No matter what you are struggling with, we are here for you.