We are programmed to choose pleasure and avoid pain. It’s natural. We prefer those things that make us feel good while we avoid those that make us feel bad. Evasion is part of life. And it is a valid strategy that can avoid unpleasantness, problems and conflicts, but when it becomes the norm it stops being adaptive and begins to generate problems.
What is hidden behind avoidance behavior?
Avoidance is an attempt to minimize and avoid threat, danger, or anxiety. Its main task is to protect us from what we perceive as a threat. Obviously, the degree of avoidance will depend directly on the seriousness with which the threat appears before our eyes.
However, it is important to be clear that, except in those situations that represent an obvious danger to life, the notion of threat is quite subjective. What may be threatening to one person may not be to another.
Some of our fears – and therefore our perception of danger – are based on past experiences. That means that if we were bitten by a dog, we are likely to be afraid of them, even though many of them do not pose a real threat.
Other times avoidance behaviors are unleashed due to a deep-rooted conception or belief. For example, if we think that a certain group of people is dangerous, we will prefer to avoid it, even though it is probably a stereotype or prejudice.
As a result, some of these avoidance behaviors could end up becoming an obstacle to living normally or could even limit our personal growth. For this reason, learning to recognize them is the first step to overcome them.
What types of avoidance behaviors are there?
Psychologist Matthew McKay described five types of avoidance behaviors:
1. Situational avoidance
This is the most common type of evasion as it makes us feel more secure. Basically, it consists of staying physically away from people, places, things or activities that are threatening to us.
This type of avoidance behavior manifests itself in post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. If a person is claustrophobic, for example, he will avoid enclosed spaces. The problem is that, in this way, it is possible that he ends up limiting his comfort zone more and more, living in a space that is gradually reduced by fear.
2. Cognitive avoidance
This type of evasion occurs internally and all of us, sooner or later, have resorted to it. Cognitive avoidance is the active removal of distressing thoughts or memories from the mind. We put it into practice every time we say to ourselves: “don’t think about it.”
However, it also manifests itself when we get distracted to avoid thinking about a problem, we daydream to avoid facing a certain situation, or if we turn to alcohol, food, or even drugs to avoid thinking.
Obviously, in some cases distracting yourself and stopping ruminative thoughts is convenient to avoid falling into a state of chronic worry. However, if we engage in maladaptive avoidance behaviors or avoid seeking solutions, the problem is likely to continue to grow out of proportion.
3. Protective avoidance
Protective avoidance refers to those actions that help us feel more secure internally. It includes all those rituals that transmit peace of mind, confidence and security, which are activated when faced with a threat, although they are generally a way to prevent risk.
It can be about lucky charms, but also about cleaning routines or the simple fact of checking the lock several times. In fact, this type of avoidance behavior is closely related to perfectionism and is at the base of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
4. Somatic avoidance
Somatic avoidance occurs when we try to go away from situations that cause a physical response similar to anxiety or stress. When a situation triggers a panic attack, it is likely that we end up avoiding it in the future to prevent physical symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness, breathing problems…
The problem is that many times, this avoidance behavior extends to other situations that are not dangerous but that generate similar physical responses, such as exciting or uncertain situations, which can end up considerably limiting our lives.
5. Substitution Avoidance
Substitution avoidance can occur both mentally and behaviorally, although in both cases it is about replacing what we want to avoid with something we can better manage. In the emotional sphere, for example, we could replace envy with anger since we consider it more acceptable and we can better deal with that emotion.
Internally, it is like replacing certain feelings, sadness or pain, with something more acceptable to us, like anger. At the behavioral level, we could try to deal with emotional pain by resorting to food, social networks or play, which would become a maladaptive way to manage emotions.
In summary, these avoidance coping strategies can give us a breather, but in the long run they usually prevent us from dealing with the problem, so it is easy for it to continue to grow, generating more and more tension and anxiety, which will plunge us into a negative spiral.
For that reason, although in some circumstances avoidance behaviors can be a good choice, we shouldn’t follow that path always. It is necessary to make that decision consciously, always evaluating the pros and cons. This way we will not limit ourselves to reacting, but we will be able to take control of our lives.