Taking Steps To Overcome Anxiety
Orlando Counselor Discusses Avoidance & Anxiety
Most individuals who suffer from anxiety desperately just want it to go away; often reporting distress associated with uncomfortable physical symptoms (racing heart, shaking, shortness of breath, dizziness, etc.) and when faced with an anxiety-producing situation, most people think, “I can’t” and instead avoid whatever is causing the anxiety.
Extensive research has shown us that one can cope with anxiety in adaptive or maladaptive ways. “Adaptive” ways lead to better functioning, and as you may suspect, “maladaptive” ways do not. Unfortunately, many maladaptive ways of coping with anxiety are quite effective in reducing anxiety in the short-term, but in the long-term these strategies actually make anxiety worse.
The most common maladaptive coping strategy by far is avoidance. Avoidance means that the anxious person is attempting to avoid whatever the anxiety-producing situation might be, in order to avoid uncomfortable thoughts or feelings.
Let’s have a look how avoidance affects some common Anxiety Disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD):
- Social Anxiety. Carlos was invited to a birthday party. Although he really wants to go, he begins to become anxious and worry about what will happen at the party. “Will anyone talk to me? If someone does talk to me, what will I say? Will I make a fool of myself?” He begins to think that most certainly he will do something embarrassing and tells himself, “I can’t”.
- School Refusal. Lucy doesn’t like middle school. She is having a difficult time with some of the mean girls in her class and for the past few weeks she has had a stomach ache every morning before school. At first, her mother allowed her to stay home from school whenever she complained, but after a few weeks, when Lucy began to get behind in her school work, Lucy’s mother made her go to school. Lucy would go to school, but after a very short time, she would go the nurse’s office and call her mom and tell her “I can’t do this!” Because Lucy would throw a fit if her Mom resisted, her mother capitulated. At Lucy’s insistence, a decision was made to home school Lucy.
- Phobia. Jim is terribly afraid of elevators. He avoids setting up appointments in any offices in which he has to use an elevator. When he was offered an incredible career opportunity in New York City, he turned it down because he knew that elevators couldn’t be avoided there. He tells himself, “I can’t” whenever the possibility of having to ride an elevator arises.
- Panic Attacks. Emma was at a crowded mall when her heart began pounding and she became short of breath. She was terrified that she was having a heart attack and called her husband who drove her to the nearest hospital, where she was diagnosed with an “anxiety attack”. At first Emma avoided going to the mall, because she was afraid that the crowds at the mall might set off another panic attack. Emma became ever vigilant of her panic symptoms, no matter where she went. As soon as she thought she felt her breath becoming short or her heartbeat increase, she became very anxious, told herself “I can’t” and left whatever situation she was in that brought on the uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety. After about 6 months, Emma avoided leaving her house because she was afraid that she would experience anxiety and panic.
- OCD. George is afraid he will contract a terrible disease if he touches surfaces that could be contaminated with germs. At first he avoided touching door handles and faucets in public restrooms, but before long he began to avoid eating in restaurants, shaking hands with others, and going to grocery stores. Even though he began to avoid more and more situations and things, it didn’t ever seem to be enough.
What you can see from the examples above is that when a person begins to avoid instead of confront the feared situation or thing, their fear is maintained and often increases in the long run. This happens because, unfortunately, at first it feels that the strategy of avoidance is helpful because it temporarily removes the feelings of anxiety. Through a process called operant conditioning the person learns that he can avoid the unpleasant experience of anxiety, which then causes the avoidance behaviors to increase. This is called negative reinforcement, which means that the removal of something negative will cause an increase in a behavior (reinforcement). By telling yourself “I can’t” and avoiding feared situations, you unfortunately eliminate all opportunities in which to learn that anxious feelings can be tolerated.
At GroundWork Counseling in Orlando, we specialize in the treatment of anxiety disorders, and understand that managing and overcoming anxiety is a process that requires courage and commitment. Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) methods, we can help you to face your fears in a gradual, systematic way so you will begin to believe that yes, you can!
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