Spiralling cycles of anxiety and avoidance
Many clients who come into counselling have learned to develop avoidant cycles of behaviour in order to cope with unbearable feelings of anxiety, stress and panic. Avoiding fearful situations seems to make rational sense, but actually increases and reinforces our fears. This is because, rather than learning to confront our fears and tolerate adversity, it actually encourages us to become risk adverse, fearful of change and associate even more sensory stimuli with the original triggers of our anxiety.
If you suffer from excessive worry, procrastination, or anticipating worst-case-scenarios you probably suffer from anxiety. These are events of the mind. But for some people, anxiety and stress involves heightened physical sensations – such as hyperarousal, fight-and-flight responses, panic attacks, angry outbursts and numerous health scares. This can lead to a chronic and debilitating cycle of anxiety and avoidance, in which you feel trapped by your own thoughts and feelings, or frozen with fear in order to avoid the perceived threat.
So what can you do about it? Face your fears, or avoid them like the plague?
You’ve probably heard the phrase: ‘Face your fear and do it anyway!’
This idea is simple enough: that in confronting your fears it enables you to tolerate adversity, learn to adapt and overcome your anxieties. But in practice most people take the line-of-least-resistance. That is they avoid people, situations and environments that trigger anxiety, so they don’t have to face the anticipated fear. Even procrastination at work, excessive cleaning and getting distracted by alternative tasks are forms of avoidance. Slowly, in conjunction with your counsellor, you can learn to undo these patterns of avoidance by developing self-awareness, identifying the triggers and repeatedly exposing yourself to low-level anxious situations until you learn to tolerate and adapt to them - thereby giving you the confidence to change life for the better.
You’ve also heard of the phrase: ‘The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.’
This means that you could be caught in a cycle of fear, where you fear your thoughts and feelings more than the object of fear itself.
For example, you’ve been given a task to do by a loved-one or your boss at work, but you fear disappointing them in some way due to your perceived incompetence or fear of failure. Because you fear letting them down so much, you may in fact sabotage the task in some way. You might try to bury and forget the task; you might miss a deadline, or complete tasks with a half-hearted attitude. These avoidance behaviours are not necessarily based on conscious choices, but in response to an underlying fear of being judged, humiliated, or exposed as a fraud.
In certain situations, you may also fear conflict and avoid engaging in difficult conversations or negotiating boundaries. You may have learned to withdraw or back-down in childhood, or after a traumatic event such as being bullied. However, the more you choose to avoid situations, the harder it is to assert yourself and stand-up for what you believe in. Alternatively, you may end up people-pleasing in the hope you will keep them on-side or they won’t confront you. Anything for an easy life.
Trying to dodge challenging situations like this often allows you immediate gratification and relief by avoiding your worst fears. But eventually you end up compromising yourself and resenting the very people you set out to please. You may adopt various coping-strategies – some of them unconscious and without realising. Typically you might sabotage situations by adopting avoidant behaviours, without acknowledging them – such as dithering or failing to make decisions, avoiding responsibility, forgetting deadlines, missing appointments, avoiding certain locations, or distracting yourself with other tasks. This is at the heart of avoidant behaviours when you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety.
Actually, repeated patterns of automatic avoidance typically reinforce anxiety and a sense of learned helplessness. As you start to avoid more and more situations you begin to decrease your tolerance for risk, adversity and new situations. The more you avoid, the more you build negative psychological associations (e.g. if you fear social gatherings, you begin to fear groups, attending social events, making small-talk or speaking your mind in a meeting). As well as this, your brain latches onto unconscious sensory triggers which become associated with those situations (e.g. the sound of lots of people speaking, crowded places, making eye-contact, or even claustrophobia).
Anxious-avoidant behaviours can be thought of as a cycle of negative reinforcement by negatively rewarding self-limiting behaviours. Instead of learning new ways to adapt, each time you attempt to accomplish a goal you let the anxiety take control and back off from responsibility. You are therefore creating a repetitive cycle of avoidance and thus negatively reinforcing the feared situation and its associations. You end up sabotaging all of your goals just so you don't have to experience the fear and get immediate gratification from relief. From that point on, you’re also likely to anticipate and interpret situations as fear-inducing, even when they were once tolerable in the past. The more you avoid these anxious situations, the more likely you are to avoid them in the future. And so the vicious cycle continues – ad infinitum.
You avoid attending events and interviews, you avoid travelling, speaking on the phone, answering emails, completing work deadlines, or expressing your fears to anyone. It becomes a never-ending cycle of anxious avoidance and sabotage…
Breaking cycles of avoidance and self-sabotage
There are a number of approaches in counselling, you can adopt to break cycles of avoidant behaviour and learn new ways of managing anxiety, even confronting your fears with confidence.
Identifying triggers – it is important to identify the triggers of your anxiety. Focus on physical sensations and emotions such as breathlessness, heart palpitations, perspiration, dry mouth, tension in the back, neck and shoulders, anger or fearfulness. It’s useful to observe negative thought processes and how you anticipate certain scenarios. Then, develop a deeper awareness of how these patterns reinforce defensive behaviours, such as using ‘escape mode’ at social events, feeling victimised, procrastinating over deadlines, or not saying ‘No’ to people who make unreasonable demands on your time.
Reward-based learning – in order to break deeply entrenched habits of avoidance, which you may find familiar or comforting, you need to develop new habits which provide you with emotionally rewarding outcomes to offset the old ones. This generates new neuronal pathways which stimulate the sensory reward-pathways to your amygdala (emotional brain), teaching you to learn reward-based behaviours that stimulate the release of dopamine and reinforce positive sensory experiences.
Growth mindset – the only way an anxious mind is able to overcome symptoms of stress and anxiety is by learning to adapt: developing a growth-mindset which seeks to experiment, adjust and learn by trial-and-error. That is, by becoming self-aware, open-minded and curious about new situations – accepting the challenges and learning to enjoy problem-solving.
Exposure therapy – by repeatedly exposing yourself to low levels of stress in the feared situation, you slowly teach your amygdala to tolerate anxious feelings and make positive associations with the feared object, such as overcoming fear of crowds. You may do this by driving to a feared location; walking up to the entrance; entering with a friend; walking around alone; immersing yourself into a crowd; reaching out to make eye-contact; talking to someone in the crowd.
Cognitive Restructuring – cognitive restructuring involves challenging your belief system by systematically interrupting negative trains of thought and replacing them with reality-based observations and thought-processes. By conditioning yourself to disrupt automatic superstitious-thinking (paranoia) you learn to dismiss the disproportionate fears you have built up in your mind through screen-playing worst-case scenarios or negative internal dialogue.
Mindfulness – this enables you to practise being more present-in-the-moment, focusing your self-awareness on sensations and emotions rather than getting caught up in excessive worrying, preoccupations with the past, or anticipating worst-case scenarios. You can learn to step back, use diaphragmatic breathing, meditation and self-compassion exercises to stimulate your vagus nerve which deactivates the build-up of stress hormones.
Sensory-motor exercises – is when you repeatedly practise physical exercises which create immediate positive sensory-motor feedback in your brain. This is vital if you’ve unconsciously developed a body-memory with negative, automatic motor-responses to anxiety, such as avoidance or panic. For examples, you can relearn how to support your body with diaphragmatic breathing during a panic attack if you have a tendency to hyperventilate, as well as adjust your body posture, vestibular system and centre of gravity if you have a tendency to hunch-up or sit unsupported by your spine and body core. It is also important to learn how to self-regulate emotions in a state of hyperarousal, using various grounding techniques if you freeze or dissociate - even using stretching, pushing and pulling techniques to prevent automatic freeze responses in the body.
Self-empowerment – this is a way of learning new activities and physical exercises which help you to feel self-empowered, more confident and build up your self-esteem after a traumatic experience.
Self-assertive exercises - learning assertive communication is essential if we want to be respected and understood, especially by those we love and trust. Assertive communication involves being able to express yourself openly and directly, without fear of being judged, or learning to overcome your fear of conflict, while developing negotiating skills and setting boundaries which respect both parties. This involves voicing your feelings, thoughts and beliefs in a way which asserts your point of view with conviction, but without violating the rights of others.
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About Gregori Savva
I am Greg Savva. An experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, open-minded approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better.