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Anxiety... Is Avoidance Helpful?

Frightened child

Anxiety is one of the most common emotions experienced by adults and children. Associated terms such as fear, trepidation, worry and rumination all fall under the umbrella of anxiety. Some of the more immediate uncomfortable symptoms that we can all experience to different degrees because of anxiety include, shortness of breath, trembling, sweating, tense muscles, butterflies in the tummy, and confused thinking. These symptoms can then lead to behaviours such as poor sleep, missing days at school or work, or even nail biting & thumb sucking.

Children experience anxiety symptoms in a similar way to adults but the content or context may be different. Children for example may complain that they have a sore tummy. Younger children may be frightened of monsters in their bedroom at night in the form of perhaps a dark shadow lurking behind the curtain. Older children may worry about being excluded by friends at school or falling behind with their school work, which prevents them from getting a good night's sleep.

One of the most common symptoms of anxiety is avoidance; and all of us - children, teens and adults would be familiar with this common strategy used to help reduce our anxiety symptoms!

Avoidance is like a gut response; our automatic go-to tool when we feel any anxiety coming on. Anxiety is after all a very uncomfortable experience, so of course we want to get away from it and we do... we all go to great, and often unhelpful, lengths to reduce our anxiety symptoms.

So, examples of avoidance in children might include:

  • Telling your parents you are sick or have a tummy ache or the like and can't go to school.

  • Not going to your friend's sleepover to avoid having to deal with peers

  • Staying in your room to avoid having to talk to visitors

Examples of avoidance in teenagers might include:

  • Again staying in your room to avoid having to talk to visitors

  • Spending too much time using technology such as Facebook, Instagram or the like - maybe to avoid the inevitable homework or others worries

  • Perhaps, depending on the age of the young person, self-medicating with food or alcohol

Examples of avoidance in adults include:

  • Cancelling appointments with friends

  • Self-medicating with food, alcohol or other drugs to numb bad feelings

The Avoidance Cycle

So an example of being caught up in the avoidance cycle for a primary school girl might go like this.

.... Think about problem – e.g. argument with friend

..... Feeling anxious - nauseous

....... Take the easier option & avoid - Don’t go to school

......... Short term relief – Feel better but haven’t really dealt with problem

........... Repeat avoidance behaviour more often – maybe become a school refuser

The child has had a fall out with a school friend and the next day she starts thinking about this in the morning before she goes to school. She begins to feel nauseous from the worry and then complains to dad that she doesn't want to go to school because she is feeling sick. The minute dad gives in and allows her to stay at home her anxiety decreases and she immediately feels much better. She has thus learnt that if she avoids the situation and doesn't face her friend her anxiety will go away. What she doesn't realise is that the next time she has a similar problem she will have a stronger urge to avoid rather than face the problem head on. In other words, the avoidance behaviour is strengthened!

An alternative approach, which may seem more difficult initially, is to continue to school while experiencing anxiety symptoms of nausea and the like. The anxiety will most likely subside of it's own accord or she may use specific coping strategies to assist her to reduce her anxiety. She will learn that if she persists and faces her fear, including using her personal coping strategies, that the next time she is in a similar situation her fear will not be as severe. The more she practices facing her fear the less anxiety she will experience in the long term! And she will learn great coping strategies and become more empowered! So next time you feel like avoiding a problem, think again and try to face it more directly.



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