The Act of Avoidance: Maladaptive or Adaptive?

Avoidance is usually seen as a maladaptive response to feared things or situations. For example, if you’re scared of elevators, you’ll probably go out of your way to find the stairs. Avoiding things can create barriers and worsen people’s anxiety of what they fear. However, some scientists argue that avoidance can sometimes act as a positive response by enhancing people’s perception of control.

Firstly, it’s important to note that avoidance is a key behavior in most anxiety disorders. By looking deeper into its benefits and negatives, we can see when avoidance is maladaptive and when it can promote psychological health. When it comes to treating anxiety disorders, exposure therapy is known as the most effective form of treatment. Avoidance and exposure seem to be opposites- so how could avoidance be good for people dealing with anxiety disorders?

Avoidance is a good skill to use when you are actively avoiding harmful stimuli. Avoidance is an issue when people continue to avoid things even though the harmful stimulus is gone. When people rely so heavily on avoidance to feel in control, it can become a habit so ingrained in their daily lives that it becomes a maladaptive hindrance.

It’s also important to note the importance of feeling in control to reduce anxiety. To a certain degree, avoidance helps patients struggling with anxiety gain control and begin to face their fears. When avoidance is used to stop exposure to harmful situations, it’s viewed more as a successful coping skill. Combining a healthy amount of avoidance with exposure in a safe environment can allow individuals to feel in control while also facing their fears. According to clinical psychologists Stefan Hoffman and Aleena Hay, some avoidance strategies give clients in the early stages of therapy a greater sense of control “without sacrificing treatment gains.” They also say that avoidance coping can help promote the effects of exposure therapy and can be adaptive in the short term (Hofmann & Hay, 2018).

When discussing coping mechanisms and whether they are causing impairment or creating healthy psychological growth, it’s important to consider the context they are used in (Fischer et al, 2021). Therefore. when thinking of avoidance, it’s not always a “bad” thing and not always a “helpful” tool. The effectiveness of avoiding things depends on the situation it’s used in and how it affects a person’s well-being.

When it comes down to it, avoidance is not always a bad trait to have. Avoidance behaviors can give people a sense of control that, when paired with exposure therapy, can better allow patients to fully confront their fear.

Think you are too avoidant or want other help with this?
Schedule an appointment today with The Purpose Center! Email kaytie@kkjpsych.com or call 919-493-1975.

Hofmann, S. G., & Hay, A. C. (2018). Rethinking avoidance: Toward a balanced approach to avoidance in treating anxiety disorders. Journal of anxiety disorders, 55, 14–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2018.03.004

Fischer, R., Scheunemann, J. & Moritz, S. Coping Strategies and Subjective Well-being: Context Matters. J Happiness Stud 22, 3413–3434 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-021-00372-7

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