We Learn By Watching Ourselves

If you struggle with anxiety or panic, avoidance is your enemy.

If you’re afraid, it’s the most natural thing in the world to choose to get away from that scary thing as fast as you can. We’re built for that. It’s understandable. And when people talk about fight or flight, know that flight is usually the favorite. If a saber toothed tiger is coming your way, fighting is not a grand idea if fleeing is an option. So avoidance is natural, it makes sense. Unfortunately, it also feeds false alarm systems that keep you stuck in the anxiety and panic loop. Let me share two reasons.

  1. We all respond to rewards. Whether you’re a pigeon learning to play ping pong with food pellets (seriously), a child learning to stay in bed with a sticker chart, or a complicated adult struggling with how to respond to fear, the principle is the same: Reinforcement strengthens behavior. Rewards work. Each time you avoid, you manage to reduce that anxiety just a bit. It works, right? For a little while anyway. So you’ve just rewarded yourself with some relief, with the absence of anxiety. The bad news is that this reinforcement just made it more likely you’ll avoid again next time you have the opportunity. This is trouble for lots of reasons, including…
  2. People learn by watching themselves. If we see ourselves avoid the highway, restaurants, talking to that attractive person, stepping on certain parts of the ground, being far from home…. we reason “there MUST be some threat for me to be acting this way.” This isn’t always in our awareness, but avoidance convinces us even more that the thing we’re avoiding ought to be avoided. In the long run, it makes it scarier.  It increases the perception of threat. That’s not helpful.

 

In almost every treatment plan I create with patients struggling with anxiety, avoidance is one of the most primary targets. It isn’t easy, but many of my patients find it’s not as hard as they feared (imagination can be intense!). If you’re reading this and it resonates, think of one small way to act the opposite when you have the urge to avoid. Pick one thing. Pick something manageable, but challenging. Go!