Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Is Psychological Avoidance?

Do you avoid things that cause you discomfort or anxiety?

Maurizio, an urban high school teacher, sat miserably on my couch. Engulfed in a haze of despair, he recounted his recent battles with anxiety. He admitted to always having been a nervous individual, but lately, it had become unbearable. At work, his anxiety levels skyrocketed, leaving him focused solely on his racing heart. Sweaty palms, nausea, and a frantic dash to his car for solace from anxiety became his daily routine.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders plague approximately 19.1 percent of the US population, making them the most common mental health concern. The World Health Organization reported a 25 percent surge in anxiety since the onset of COVID-19. While anxiety can be agonizing and crippling for many, I contend that it isn't the core issue. The true villain, hindering our ability to live a vibrant and courageous life, is psychological avoidance.

What Is Psychological Avoidance?
Have you ever found yourself avoiding something that causes you discomfort or anxiety? Maybe it's a difficult conversation with a loved one, a work project you've been procrastinating on, or even going to the dentist. Though the urge to avoid can be strong, submitting to that urge rarely works out well. Psychological avoidance refers to any response to a perceived threat that brings immediate emotional relief but comes with long-term negative consequences. This could be anything from substance abuse to simply distracting yourself with TV or social media. Essentially, avoidance gives us fast but temporary relief from discomfort while keeping us stuck in the long run.

For Maurizio, running to his car helped him to calm down at the moment, but every time he walked back into his classroom, the anxiety would come flooding back, often even stronger. In the end, Maurizio had to take a leave from work because the only way he was able to manage his anxiety was by avoiding it, which just made him feel more anxious.

Why do we avoid?

Picture an internal thermometer that gauges your discomfort in real-time, ranging from zero (serene and composed) to one hundred (on the verge of imploding from anxiety, fear, and stress). The higher the reading, the stronger your urge to avoid and alleviate the discomfort. It's a natural response, as nobody enjoys feeling uncomfortable.

However, the issue lies not in the discomfort itself but in our reactions to it. By evading challenges, we signal to our brains that the only way of handling difficult situations is to flee rather than confront them. This bolsters our avoidance instincts. The more we sidestep, the more we perpetuate an unending cycle of discomfort that gradually infiltrates every aspect of our lives.

What is the long-term cost?

The persistent reliance on psychological avoidance bears a heavy toll, as it hinders our pursuit of a brave and fulfilling life while stunting our personal and professional growth. By evading discomfort, we forfeit invaluable learning experiences and the opportunities they bring.

How can we overcome the cycle of psychological avoidance?

It's a critical question to address, as avoidance can lead to long-term distress and missed opportunities in life. To break free from this self-imposed trap, we need to implement two key strategies: recognizing avoidance patterns and embracing discomfort.

The first step in breaking free from avoidance is to identify when we're engaging in it. This can be a challenging task, as avoidance often manifests as subtle distractions or seemingly innocent excuses. By becoming more mindful of our behaviors and identifying when we're dodging certain situations, we can begin to confront our avoidance patterns. Maurizio, for example, tracked his daily behaviors and identified those that served solely to avoid discomfort. By doing so, he was able to understand and address his avoidance tendencies.

The second strategy is to practice tolerating discomfort. This involves intentionally exposing ourselves to uncomfortable situations and learning to endure the resulting distress without fleeing. It's essential to approach this process gradually and treat ourselves with compassion. Over time, we can develop the ability to manage discomfort effectively and break free from the cycle of avoidance. Maurizio discovered that transforming his anxiety into empowerment required facing it head-on. By remaining in the classroom despite his anxiety, he learned to tolerate, and eventually reduce, his apprehension.

Breaking the cycle of avoidance can be a challenging journey, but it is crucial to remember that while avoidance may offer temporary relief, it ultimately results in long-term suffering and lost opportunities. By acknowledging the cycle and leaning into discomfort, we can better engage with life's challenges and pursue more fulfilling, bold lives.


Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2021). Facts & Statistics.

World Health Organization. (2020). Mental health and COVID-19.

More from Luana Marques Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today