Help an Anxious Loved One Reduce Their Avoidance
Anxiety-related avoidance can cause stress in relationships.
Posted February 10, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- It's natural to want to avoid things that cause anxiety, but one person's avoidance can cause problems in relationships.
- Accommodation and polarization are two problematic relationship issues associated with avoidance due to anxiety.
- There are steps you can take to help your loved one confront avoided situations.
It's natural to want to avoid things that cause anxiety and stress. However, when your loved one frequently avoids situations because of their anxiety, it can cause a strain on your relationship.
People with anxiety avoid all sorts of things. For example, they might avoid group events due to social anxiety or avoid freeway driving due to panic attacks. Some people avoid doing things that cost money due to excessive financial worries. The pandemic caused many individuals with extreme health anxiety to avoid virtually everything outside the home.
If your loved one engages in anxiety-related avoidance, it might be incredibly frustrating to you. As a result, you might have a lot of resentment built up towards them.
The good news is that with a better understanding of your loved one’s anxiety and avoidance, coupled with a few strategies, you can support them in reducing this avoidance.
Why Do Anxious People Avoid Things?
It makes sense that someone would want to avoid situations that cause anxiety and discomfort. Avoiding these situations can be self-reinforcing: anxiety reduces because the feared situation was avoided, which is very relieving.
However, when a person avoids due to anxiety, they don't learn how to handle the situation. It makes it seem even scarier, making future avoidance even more likely. Thus, people often get stuck in a cycle of anxiety and avoidance. As a result, some people's engagement in life gets smaller and smaller.
Anxiety Avoidance and Relationships
Accommodation and polarization are two phenomena that can occur in relationships due to one person's anxiety-related avoidance.
- Accommodation: It can be painful when your loved one is experiencing anxiety, and you might want to do all that you can to help. For example, you might stop yourself from suggesting an activity you know they won't want to do. Or, you might quickly agree with your loved one when they refuse to do something that causes anxiety. Unfortunately, even though you think you are helping, you are just feeding into the cycle of anxiety and avoidance, making things worse in the long term. Thus, you are accommodating their avoidance behaviors.
- Polarization: On the flip side, you might be so frustrated with your loved one's avoidance that you get angry and fail to empathize with them. The more they insist on avoiding, the angrier you get. In turn, your loved one might be motivated to avoid even more to try to convince you of their distress. The two of you become polarized in opposite positions around their anxiety.
Steps to Help and Support Your Loved One
You can take steps to turn things into a more positive direction around your loved one's avoidance. You can make these changes, even if you have been accommodating the problem, or if you have been so frustrated that polarization has occurred (or a combination of the two),
1. Convey Understanding and Validation. The first thing to best support your loved one is to understand why they are anxious and avoidant. What is driving their fear, and what are they afraid of happening?
You might disagree with their motivations and think they are catastrophizing, and you might even think that they are weak. However, it is helpful to put yourself in their shoes and find the kernel of truth in their fears. Show them that you understand by validating their experience. For example, saying something like, "It makes sense that you don't want to go to the party, given that you don’t know a lot of the people there and worry you won't have people to talk to."
2. Voice the impact on you. After you have expressed validation, gently tell your loved one how their avoidance affects you: "I know that you get anxious in social situations. But, I feel resentful that we never go out with other people, and I don't want to resent you."
3. Get their buy-in. Explain the anxiety/avoidance cycle to them. Maybe even show them this article. Ask them what they would be willing to work on changing. "Would you be willing to socialize with people you know better and who you feel more comfortable with?"
4. Assist them with approaching situations they avoid. It can be hard to confront a feared situation. Think about helping them break down the steps to help them feel more confident with a situation.
Are they avoiding driving on the freeway? Would they consider practicing driving just one exit during times of less traffic as a first step? Once they get more comfortable with that, it could expand to two exits. Are they unreasonably anxious about spending money? Would they be open to going to an inexpensive restaurant? Would they be willing to go to a party if it were for only a half-hour or 45 minutes?
5. Get more help if needed. You can support your loved one in decreasing their avoidance, but you are not their therapist. Some people could benefit from the help of a professional and consider helping them find a therapist who can help.
Keep Your Intentions Clear
Finally, if your intention is to help your loved one with their anxiety and improve the relationship, be sure to share that with your loved one. Revisit that intention with yourself if you ever get frustrated with them. The frequent reminders that you are coming from a good place can help to improve a stressful situation.
Anxiety Essential Reads
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Ball, T. M., & Gunaydin, L. A. (2022). Measuring maladaptive avoidance: From animal models to clinical anxiety. Neuropsychopharmacology
Lebowitz, E. R., Panza, K. E., Su, J., & Bloch, M. H. (2012). Family accommodation in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 12(2), 229–238.