David Wilkinson

Banisher of fears, slayer of anxiety & developer of emotional resilience

Run Away!: Why Avoiding What Makes You Anxious is Probably Making Things Worse

Run Away!: Why Avoiding What Makes You Anxious is Probably Making Things Worse

Did you know anxiety disorders are the number one most commonly suffered mental health issues. Almost 20% of the population, or 1 in 5 of us will suffer from some form of non-minor anxiety in any year. As well as the distress caused, anxiety results in a range of other secondary issues like social avoidance, problems associated with jobs and employment, achievement, functioning as a family member as well as decreased health and lower levels of quality of life compared to people without anxiety. The economic cost is estimated to over $42 billion a year in the US alone.

Recent research attention has been focussing on a number of issues and in particular the effect avoidance (see my last blog) has on individuals with anxiety. As I mentioned previously there are broadly three tiers or levels of problem caused by anxiety based avoidance.

1. The individual avoids the stimulus of the anxiety: flying, meetings or public speaking for example, which means they won't realise the positive effects of that activity
2. Avoidance, once used as a coping strategy, tends then to become the first method of dealing with any difficult emotion, thereby habituating it.
3. The individuals tend to avoid any associated activities connected to the anxiety, including treatment.

A study just published by researchers from the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb in the United States looked in more detail at the effects of anxiety avoidance.

They discovered a number of important things:
1. Firstly they found that people who turned to avoidance or flight as a coping strategy not only tended to avoid all negative emotions in this way, but also positive emotions. In effect people who use avoidance as a coping strategy down regulate positive emotions as well. This obviously exacerbates things and has a powerful negative effect on their quality of life.
2. People who tend to avoid negative emotions also tend to suffer from heightened levels of anxiety.
3. People who have lower levels of ability to take and maintain control over what they pay attention to, also had lower emotion regulation capability. What this means in effect is that it is very likely that the basis of many emotion regulation (and therefore emotional resilience) techniques is the ability to shift our focus away from internal emotions, and in particular negative emotions, to more productive activities and focus.

In short, avoiding anxiety and the causes of anxiety tends also to avoid positive emotions. They are also more likely to suffer from greater levels of anxiety, and are less likely to have the skills (these can be learnt) needed to deal effectively with other negative and positive emotions overall.





Bardeen, J.R. et al., (2014) Exploring the relationship between positive and negative emotional avoidance and anxiety symptom severity: The moderating role of attentional control. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. Volume 45, Issue 3, September 2014, Pages 415–420



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