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Avoidance of Anxiety as Self-Sabotage: How Running Away Can Bite You in the Behind

You have a choice: conquer your anxiety, or let it control you.

You are standing in line for your first roller coaster ride. Your heart is racing and your palms are sweating as you watch the ride fly by. Are you going to be able to face your fear and get on the ride? Or are you going to sit this one out and miss out on the thrill? Many people will turn around and walk away, missing out on a great experience. This same situation comes up in all facets of life from jobs to relationships. You have a choice: conquer your anxiety, or let it control you.

One of the most common experiences in life is feeling uneasy about a situation, and the most common reaction to anxiety is to avoid the situation. This avoidance is self-sabotage. Think about it, have you ever walked away from an important goal because it was just too hard to face your fears? I know I have.

Although understanding the causes of your anxiety is important for overcoming it, the most important aspect is to focus on is how you respond to your fears. In fact, the ways that we respond to fear can often feed that fear and make it worse! By learning how you respond to anxiety and working to change those responses, you can overcome anxiety and accomplish some very difficult goals.

Now if there's one concept from the psychology literature that I'd like you to remember regarding fear and avoidance, it is the concept of negative reinforcement. Understanding negative reinforcement will help you combat fear in your daily life, and it will also help you see the same problem in other people, which may be useful at times. Negative reinforcement refers to a behavior which is rewarded because that behavior removes an unwanted stimulus or feeling. For example, when I get into my car and forget to put on my seat belt, my car starts beeping loudly at me. That beeping is extremely annoying! So to get the beeping to stop, I plug in my seat belt. Doing so ends the beeping and restores peace to the car. In this situation my car is negatively reinforcing me for putting on my seatbelt. It is rewarding me by removing the annoying noise, and the next time I get in the car I'm more likely to put on my seatbelt right away to avoid that noise.

Negative reinforcement in the case of anxiety can be thought of as "avoidance." Each time you attempt to accomplish a goal, but you let the fear take control and back down, you are avoiding and thus negatively reinforcing yourself. You are sabotaging your goals just so you don't have to experience the fear anymore! The more you avoid anxious situations, the more likely you are to avoid future anxiety-inducing situations.

So how does one overcome avoidance and accomplish his or her goals? Part of the key to understanding your avoidance behavior is to understand how you are influenced by negative reinforcement. You have to catch yourself in the moment, when you are about to avoid an anxiety-invoking situation, and recognize that to avoid the situation would be to negatively reinforce yourself. Once you realize that you are avoiding anxiety, and thus self-sabotaging, the next step is to force yourself to face that fear and see the situation through. It helps to remember that even if the situation doesn't work out the way you hoped, it isn't the end of the world and mistakes can actually provide a valuable learning experience. Just remember all those times where you thought something was the "end of the world" - everything worked itself out in the end, didn't it? It's like Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!"

Sometimes, facing one's fears is easier said than done, however. Giving a speech, for example, could be so anxiety provoking that's almost painful for some people. Yet, when you force yourself to make it through the situation, however difficult, you'll see that everything was fine even if you made a mistake, and there's a good possibility that it could work out really well for you! Even if painful, the next time you face that anxiety situation the pain will be less intense. Eventually, the fear may altogether disappear. It's also important to remember that overcoming your fears and avoidance behaviors takes practice. The more you face those fears, the easier it will be to handle the new ones that get in your way, and the more goals you will accomplish!

More from Edward A. Selby Ph.D.
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