• We all have different coping mechanisms we lean on to manage emotions like anxiety, like avoidance

  • Dr Luana Marques explains 3 methods to manage anxiety more successfully

  • We have therapists and counsellors who specialise in anxiety – find them here

Mary recoils at any hint of confrontation. When confronted with unsettling questions, her nerves become raw, prompting her to dodge the discussion at any cost. Her colleagues have become all too aware of this. They've learnt to not broach thorny subjects during meetings; Mary turns beet-red and promptly exits the room. Instead, they resort to emails for such matters. However, these often remain unaddressed for days, as Mary, anxious at the mere thought of conflict, tries her best not to respond. She's trapped in a ceaseless loop of anxiety induced by confrontation.

On the contrary, Eduardo confronts conflict head-on, so fiercely that it instils fear in others. His team avoids direct interactions, not due to any concern about him abandoning the conversation, but because of the dread of his explosive responses. Eduardo is equally distressed about conflicts, but rather than avoiding them, he confronts them. As he asserts his views to his team, he experiences temporary relief, and his anxiety levels drop slightly. Yet, the guilt of his aggressive outbursts creeps up on him once he's alone, intensifying his anxiety. Much like Mary, he finds himself in a perpetual state of anxiety.

Despite their differences, Mary and Eduardo share a common struggle – both believe their anxiety keeps them immobile. They're convinced that eradicating this anxiety would set them free forever. But what if anxiety isn't the real villain? While high-level anxiety is indeed uncomfortable, and many of us wish to eliminate it, it's not anxiety that keeps them stuck. The true problem lies in their respective responses to anxiety – both avoid when they feel anxious.

What is psychological avoidance?

Psychological avoidance is an emotional coping mechanism. It's a reaction to perceived threats that offer immediate emotional relief but lead to long-term negative consequences. 

Both Mary and Eduardo, faced with conflictual situations, feel compelled to address their anxiety. Mary escapes by physically distancing herself from confrontations, be it through unanswered emails or leaving meetings prematurely. Conversely, Eduardo confronts his anxiety through angry outbursts and heated responses. 

While they both achieve temporary relief from anxiety and discomfort, this form of avoidance only reinforces their brain's belief that anxiety can only be managed by evasion, ultimately breeding more anxiety.

What are the different types of psychological avoidance?

There are three forms of psychological avoidance: Reacting, Retreating, and Remaining. 

If you resonate with Mary, you might retreat when anxious, moving away from discomfort. This could manifest as avoiding eye contact during challenging conversations, cancelling an event that makes you uncomfortable, or distracting yourself with social media.

In contrast, if you identify with Eduardo, you might react, charging towards discomfort as a quick fix. Examples could be overworking to mitigate anxiety, hastily quitting your job, or hastily replying to emails without much thought, only to regret it later.

Another common strategy is static, like a deer in the headlights, unsure about the right course of action, where you remain stuck in psychological avoidance. Individuals who adopt this strategy often find themselves stuck in unsatisfactory jobs or relationships, paralysed by fear and anxiety.

How can we combat psychological avoidance? 

Here are three valuable science-driven skills that you can use to overcome the real enemy keeping you stuck, avoidance.

Shift: Anxiety can distort your perception and trigger extreme thinking patterns. It's essential to broaden your perspective by challenging anxiety-driven thoughts. 

Ask yourself, "What advice would I give my best friend if they were in this situation?" This approach can help you replace anxiety-ridden thoughts with more balanced ones, decreasing your emotional distress.

Approach: Anxiety often urges us to shy away from discomfort. Instead, try practicing opposite action by moving towards what makes you anxious. 

For instance, if anxiety is compelling you to cancel a date, could you consider a phone call or a video meeting instead? This approach retrains your brain to handle anxiety and resist avoidance.

Align: Anxiety tends to shift us away from our values, causing further discomfort. To align you must look at your daily activities and align them with what matters most to you, your values. 

For instance, if you value health, make sure you maintain physical activity. If you value family, are you setting aside time for them? By aligning your actions with your values, you can reduce stress and enhance your quality of life.

Living a bold life isn't synonymous with living fearlessly. A bold life involves battling the real adversary, psychological avoidance, to ensure you are living your life to its fullest, most satisfying potential. 

We don't need to eliminate anxiety; instead, we need to learn how to better respond to it. By shifting our perspective, approaching our discomfort, and aligning our actions with our values, we can better manage anxiety, break free from the chains of psychological avoidance, and steer our lives towards a more enriching direction.

Dr Luana Marques is the author of Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Your Anxiety into Power

Further reading

How to untangle unhelpful coping strategies

Men and anxiety: a tool kit

What's the difference between fear and anxiety?

How presence will help you find peace of mind

8 ways to cope with eco-anxiety