Are the things you’re doing to try and avoid your anxiety actually making it worse? Understanding how the anxiety cycle works can help you know if you may be shortcutting your ability to build resilience and manage stress.
It’s Monday afternoon at your workplace, and you have just found out that you will need to make a presentation to a new group of clients later that week. You make your way back to your desk as your head is spinning, your heart is racing, and your stomach is starting to churn. All you can focus on is what could go wrong, and why you’re the wrong person for this assignment. You decide you need a way out, and start running through your options – calling in sick, saying that you have a scheduling conflict, or boosting another colleague as better suited for this kind of work. At this point, you feel like you’ll say anything to get out of this responsibility and ease your anxiety.
When anxiety levels are causing both physical and emotional distress, it is a normal response to cope using avoidance behaviours. However, this strategy doesn’t address root causes of anxiety, and typically provides only a brief sense of relief while feeding into longer-term problems around stress management and quality of life. Identifying avoidance coping and learning alternatives can help assure a more effective approach to lessening anxiety and reducing stress.
Understanding the Anxiety Cycle
To understand more about anxiety and avoidance behaviours, it is important to know how the anxiety cycle works, and why it ends up in fuelling further anxiety. Typically, people who experience anxiety go through 4 stages of anxiety in the cycle. Becoming aware of these stages, and how the cycle perpetuates itself, is an important first step towards better addressing avoidance coping.
The 4 Stages of Anxiety
- Feeling anxious – you have just experienced something that’s triggered your anxiety, and you’re already feeling the discomfort of anxiety-related symptoms like overthinking, inability to focus on other things, stomach upset, and sleep disturbances
- Attempting avoidance – to attempt to alleviate these symptoms, you rely on avoidance behaviours to escape your anxiety, such as cancelling plans, avoiding confrontation, or not participating in certain events or conversations
- Experiencing temporary relief – as you have removed yourself from the immediate source of stress, you feel a bit better and can settle back into your normal routine
- Reinforcement of anxiety – this pattern teaches your brain that the only way to manage anxiety is to avoid it, so that when similar situations arise, you will automatically look for ways to escape anxiety rather than learn how to effectively deal with it
What Do Avoidance Behaviours Look Like?
Not all avoidance behaviours look like disappearing or non-engagement. To understand if you are relying on avoidance behaviours as a way to cope with your anxiety, it is important to know the different manifestations, including retreating, reacting, and remaining.
Retreating looks and feels like our typical concept of avoidance. This can look like refusing to respond to an email, reaching for a cocktail to avoid thinking about a conflict, or quitting a job or leaving a relationship to avoid confronting a challenging situation. This can also take the form of procrastination. While it might feel like you are limiting stress at the time, it sets you on a path of always being on the lookout for a possible escape rather than dealing with what’s in front of you and growing from it.
For some people, the feelings of anxiety are so uncomfortable that they will react immediately to try and shut the situation down. Instead of not responding to an email, they will respond immediately but without the level of consideration needed to truly solve the problem. Relationship problems might be handled by an angry outburst coupled with a refusal to discuss things any further. While this avoidance behaviour does involve a level of engagement, it is purely to stop the anxious feelings and not directed towards finding a constructive solution.
You are stuck in an unrewarding job or a toxic relationship, but your anxiety around change compels you to stay there indefinitely, despite the impacts on your overall quality of life. This is the avoidance behaviour known as “remaining,” which entails maintaining that which is familiar but unhealthy because it feels less stressful than beginning a transition to something new.
How to Redirect Avoidance Coping to Better Manage Stress and Anxiety
Once you have identified that you are using avoidance coping as a way to deal with your anxiety, you make way for the opportunity to begin to actually address your anxiety, turning your habits away from escape and towards constructive, solution-focused engagement.
Getting acquainted with your fears
Instead of simply reacting to the emotional response that comes up when you are faced with an anxiety trigger, write down exactly what is bothering you. Journaling your thoughts can help you get a different perspective on them, and use a different part of your brain to analyse what’s causing you stress and how to manage it. You may want to consider adding some affirmations at the end to help move your brain into a more positive space.
Make an active plan to deal with your anxiety
Once you are aware of your thoughts and can identify when you are defaulting to avoidance behaviours, the next step is to make a plan to address the cause of your anxiety in an active way. This could mean talking with a coworker about a stressful work situation with the aim of finding a solution, or working together with a friend to find ways to make larger social situations easier to navigate. Essentially, instead of running away from what is causing anxiety, you are leaning into it to build your skills in managing stress and handling challenges. This helps to break out of the anxiety cycle, and reduce anxiety in the long-term.
Talk to a Therapist
If you are trying to manage your anxiety on your own, but feeling like you are struggling to break old patterns or feel comfortable testing out new behaviours, talking to a therapist can help. Many people find it difficult to shift well-established patterns, even when they realise that these behaviours are not serving them. Therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on helping you become aware of negative responses, feelings, and behaviours and to learn how to respond to these situations in a more effective way.
It is important to be patient with yourself as you begin to try and shift your responses away from long-held patterns. Recognise that by practising real engagement with your problems, you will lessen rather than fuel your anxiety, and build confidence in your ability to effectively handle stress.
Breaking Out of the Anxiety Cycle at The Dawn
At The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in Thailand, we offer a holistic approach to mental health and addiction treatment for our primarily international clientbase. Our mental wellness programme has been specially designed to help our clients gain a deeper understanding of their symptoms, and learn skills to manage their condition. For all of our clients, including those with anxiety disorders, we offer highly tailored treatment to assure the best outcomes for your health.
A Mental Health Retreat in Thailand
Located on the outskirts of the beautiful city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, The Dawn’s tranquil riverfront location, surrounded by picturesque rice fields and traditional Thai villages, immediately transports you into an oasis of calm completely removing you from all your stressors – the people, places and things in your daily life that contribute to your condition.
Internationally accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International (AACI) and nationally licensed by the Thai Ministry of Health, The Dawn offers a carefully cultivated mix of the latest psychotherapeutic techniques and scientifically proven wellness practices to ensure holistic healing and instil healthy coping skills.
Call us today to learn more about our mental health retreat.