Do you know somebody who is using avoidance to cope?
Perhaps it could even be you!
Avoidance is a classic coping strategy employed by people with anxiety – however, it actually makes things worse …
Today however I’m going to be talking specifically about avoidance when used by people suffering from social anxiety.
What is Social Anxiety?
The individual suffering with social anxiety feels that they are constantly being criticised or judged unfavourably by others. Consequently, they may have difficulties with any social activities or interactions – such as public speaking, eating or drinking in public, going to parties, even interviews and the like.
Usually a person with social anxiety will overestimate the extent that others are paying attention to them. But the fact is, research has proven that others are watching or thinking about us for less than we think! Most people are too busy thinking about themselves and their own lives, to notice much about anybody else!
It is also common for individuals with social anxiety to assume that not only are other people always watching them, they are also thinking the worst about them.
So how does social anxiety develop?
- According to research, some people are born with a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders; there is a school of thought that individuals with social anxiety are prone to more acute emotions, with a more reactive nervous system.
- Some individuals may have had negative or even traumatic experiences as children, where social situations led to high anxiety levels. This commonly leads them avoid particular social events as a coping mechanism; creating a pattern of avoidance – which can be hard to break, and without treatment may persist across the lifespan.
- People who are sensitive to what others think of them and like to ‘make a good impression’ on others, are also more inclined to suffer from social anxiety.
Using Avoidance to Cope
Avoiding certain situations might sound like a smart strategy in the short-term.
However, in the long-term, avoidance only reinforces the feelings of anxiety, and the individual’s belief that they can’t cope.
For example, a person at a large party may leave early after experiencing symptoms of panic. This works in the short-term, as their immediate anxiety reduces. Then, the belief of ‘the only way I can cope with social situations is to avoid them’ becomes internalised.
When a similar situation comes up again, anxiety will rise quickly, leading the person to again avoid the situation. And so the cycle begins.
Individuals with social anxiety may start using avoidance for many similar situations – until it is having a real negative impact on their daily life. By practising avoidance, the individual never finds out that their fears most likely won’t be realised, and that they really can cope.
Treatment for Social Anxiety and Avoidance
When a pattern of avoidance has developed, it usually requires treatment from a psychologist to help overcome the problem.
There are several steps in the treatment of social anxiety, utilising evidence-based techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Each step should be completed in sequence before moving on to the next step.
Step 1 – Learn to reduce symptoms of anxiety through the use of controlled breathing, relaxation exercises (such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, cue relaxation) and distraction techniques.
Step 2 – Identify and challenge distorted thinking patterns and negative core beliefs.
Step 3 – Gradual exposure to social activities through the use of a ‘fear hierarchy.’ By identifying situations which you avoid, and gradually exposing yourself to them repeatedly, you can reduce the anxiety that has become associated with these experiences. It is important to do this in a series of steps starting with easier steps and gradually becoming harder, so you can build up your confidence without becoming overwhelmed. When you do confront the avoided situations, you will use relaxation techniques to control anxiety symptoms.
Step 4 – Build self-confidence through assertiveness skills training, and identify and utilise personal strengths.
If you have been using avoidance as a coping mechanism, but have reached a point where you realise it is no longer working for you, it’s time to see a psychologist and get professional support and guidance.
Author: Tegan Gonczar, BA (Hons), Grad Dip Ed (Secondary).
Tegan Gonczar is a Brisbane psychologist with experience in providing psychological counselling to children, adolescents and adults; she has a passion for working with people of all ages, to help them overcome obstacles, learn effective ways of coping and lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Tegan Gonczar, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
- Australian Psychological Society. (2010). Evidence-based Psychological Interventions in the Treatment of Mental Disorders (3rd ed.).
- Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Medvec, V. H. (2001). The spotlight effect revisited: Overestimating the manifest variability of our actions and appearance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, (38), 93–99.