We feel anxious, and then we avoid. It numbs us and distracts us from our discomfort. But inevitably, that anxious feeling creeps back up again. If you are like me or many of my clients, you find yourself avoiding things even when you tell yourself over and over that you are going to get it done. Instead, you eat snacks, sleep, scroll through your phone, find something else to do that is more enjoyable, find something else to do that is also productive but leaves the thing you avoided hanging over your head, et cetera.
You may even drink alcohol, abuse substances, harm yourself, just stand there staring off into space completely disconnected from the present moment, or consciously rationalize or talk yourself out of the need to get it done. Afterwards, you feel guilty in addition to anxious, so now you feel overwhelmed and the cycle continues. Vicious!
Avoidance is also a very instinctual survival skill that allows us to cope when we feel overwhelmed.
Rather than becoming overstimulated, we choose to shut down because it feels less threatening. However, there are times – especially when we teach ourselves to avoid out of habit – when what we are facing is not too overwhelming objectively but internally we choose to view it as too much to handle.
As a trauma therapist, I want to make a quick distinction here – there are times when things really are too overwhelming. It’s not just our anxiety and our thoughts. The avoidance may be our safest option to cope and is an uncontrollable response to trauma. This response can still show up as problematic in our lives. At that point, we can choose to address it and find alternative ways to cope. However, it is still important to also understand and have compassion for the part of your avoidance that in a sense is helping you to move forward and stay alive.
But it’s miserable! So when we decide avoiding just isn’t working anymore, what do we do to break this cycle?
First, notice your avoidant behaviour and call yourself out.
Be completely honest and curious with yourself. What is getting in the way? Watch out for thoughts that lead to avoidance such as, “I’m a bad person because I avoided something that was important to me again.” These thoughts are a type of avoidance in and of themselves. They focus on the problems that keep you from accomplishing your goal rather than the solutions to just start inching towards your goal. It’s not helpful. When you notice thoughts like these say to yourself, “Those are thoughts trying to get me to avoid again.”
Next, lay out the reasons why accomplishing this goal is important to you.
What values are involved? Remind yourself of these.
Finally, take a small, manageable step that you believe you can commit to.
Haven’t started laundry? Just sort it for now. Haven’t texted that person back? Write out one sentence. Need to find a therapist? Just spend a few minutes perusing Google and reading about options. Tempted to take a big avoidance step by ending your own life? Call a trusted friend or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
More than likely, once you start, the anxiety about the whole process will lessen and you will get your momentum moving. You got this!
If you are still feeling challenged, include another person for support and accountability. Some of the skills suggested in this post include mindfulness, acceptance, values, committable actions, accountability, and more – all of which are things therapy can help establish. Not sure what those values are? Talk to a therapist. We love helping people distinguish their values and get them on track to the life they want.
Contact us today if you would like help with that small, manageable first step towards the better life you want at 816-287-0252 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to connecting with you! We believe we are all #betterconnected.