As humans, we are wired to move toward pleasure and avoid pain. We do this in many ways, including through five main types of avoidance.
Avoidance is a part of life.
There are times when you avoid people, places, or things because you know already know how the situation will turn out (and it’s not good).
But if certain behaviors are hindering your personal growth, you may find it helpful to determine your avoidance strategies and take action to overcome them. Awareness can often be the first step in this process.
Avoidance is the attempt to minimize and avert perceived threat, danger, or anxiety, says Michael G. Wetter, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, California.
“In the most basic of terms, the function of avoidance is to protect us from what we perceive to be a threat,” he says. “The degree to which we avoid is directly linked, and associated with, the level of perceived threat or danger.”
Your notion of what is threatening is entirely relative, he explains.
“Sometimes, these fears are based on experiences, e.g., ‘I was bit by a dog, so now I’m afraid to approach dogs.’ Other times they are simply cognitive, e.g., ‘I imagine being bit by a dog would be horrible, so I will avoid dogs,’” says Wetter.
By determining your specific avoidance behaviors, you can better address them.
In his book “Mind and Emotions: A Universal Treatment for Emotional Disorders,” author and professor Matthew McKay, PhD, outlines five types of avoidance behaviors:
This is the most common type of avoidance, says McKay in his book.
Situational avoidance refers to staying away from people, places, things, or activities that feel activating to you. This is a formal symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like a veteran who avoids the outdoors during a holiday firework display, or a mass shooting survivor who avoids crowded public spaces.
It can also occur for people without PTSD, writes McKay, like those who avoid:
- crowded elevators
- eye contact with new people
- wildlife areas with snakes
This type of avoidance is an inside job. Cognitive avoidance refers to actively turning your mind away from distressing thoughts or memories. This may include consciously telling yourself, “Don’t think about those things.”
It could also take the form of distracting yourself, dissociating, fantasizing, or even toxic positivity.
“You might fill your mind with distracting fantasies or daydreams or repeat mental rituals, such as saying certain good luck phrases over and over in your mind. Sometimes ritualized prayers or affirmations serve a similar purpose, with the repeated words and phrases drowning out memories or thoughts that bother you,” writes McKay.
In some cases, this could also take the form of chronic worrying or obsessive thoughts. You may find yourself constantly preparing for the “what ifs” by going over (and over) certain details, plans, or scenarios in your head in hopes that it will shield you from future disasters or disappointments.
Protective avoidance refers to actions in your physical environment that help you feel safer in your inner world, including:
- compulsive cleaning
- rituals that enhance your sense of safety
- keeping lucky charms or talismans
These behaviors are commonly associated with
“Perfectionism and overpreparation for classes or work can also be a form of protective avoidance. Conversely, you might try to avoid risk by procrastinating and putting off a feared task or event,” writes McKay.
Somatic avoidance refers to steering clear from situations that elicit a physical response similar to anxiety or the stress response.
“Rapid, racing heart rate, and tingling sensations in extremities all exist as some form of somatic experience that many people associate with panic, fear, or medical conditions that are frightening,” explains Wetter.
“Therefore, for people who avoid those types of somatic responses, they will also tend to avoid activities or situations that trigger such responses, such as roller coasters, thrill rides, and uncertain situations.”
This could also include:
- exciting events
- falling in love
- feeling fatigued (like working out)
- sexual arousal
- temperature changes
Substitution avoidance can take shape internally or externally.
Internally, this could look like replacing certain feelings, like sadness or grief, with something that feels more acceptable to you, like anger.
Externally, this could look like relying on some sort of crutch to cope with emotional pain, like alcohol, food, drugs, sex, or anything else that provides temporary respite from uncomfortable emotions. This is a common feature of substance use disorders.
“Cultivating an overall feeling of numbness can serve the same purpose. And some people turn to the excitement of gambling, risky behavior, video games, or Internet porn as a way of replacing or covering painful feelings they want to avoid,” writes McKay.
Related mental health conditions
Certain mental health conditions are linked to avoidance behaviors. These include:
We all exhibit some avoidant tendencies from time to time, says Wetter.
“Those tendencies, however, should not rule our lives or deprive us of participating in experiences, activities, or moments that we would otherwise enjoy or be required to do,” he explains.
“It is appropriate and recommended for you to seek professional help when the tendency to avoid causes an interruption or impairment in day-to-day living.”
Among the many benefits of therapy, a professional can help you:
- examine the root cause of behaviors
- express your emotions in a productive way
- develop tools to cope with distress
- self-regulate during difficult times
Avoidance is part of your hard-wiring as a human being.
In some cases, avoidance can become a way of life. Not only can that prevent personal growth and the satisfaction that comes with overcoming your fears, but it may take away from your overall quality of life.
“Over the long term, your life is on hold. The depth, height, and reach of your very existence is limited by your day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year attempts to avoid feelings that are, ultimately, unavoidable,” writes McKay.
Avoidance may even hurt you or those around you. In this case, you may find it helpful to read McKay’s book for a better understanding of what’s going on.
Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.