Avoidance is a common human behavior that has good intentions but can spiral out of control until, before we realize it, we’re trapped, boxed in by anxiety and blocked from fully living (see What is Avoidance Doing to You?) Avoidance is fear- and anxiety-based. Whether we avoid one situation, such as making or taking phone calls, or almost every situation, such as anything that takes us out of the house, we are letting anxiety limit our lives.
Is “letting” the right word? Do we actively permit anxiety to cause avoidance? Of course we don’t actively invite anxiety and avoidance into our lives. The vast majority of people who are plagued by avoidance, including avoidance in its most extreme form—avoidant personality disorder—do not want to avoid and are not actively choosing it. The problem is this: avoidance, once started, quickly takes over thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It looks like this:
At first, everything is pretty much even in the cycle of anxiety and avoidance, avoidance actually increases anxiety over time, which strengthens avoidance. The cycle begins to look like this:
While initially, avoiding something that causes anxiety does reduce that anxiety. But the human mind doesn’t like to be confined, and we begin to think of freedom of action, freedom of being. That causes anxiety, which causes avoidance. Anxiety and avoidance feed on each other, and they grow bigger and more powerful. Strangely but surely, avoidance doesn’t reduce anxiety anymore. It makes it ever stronger.
As daunting as this cycle of avoidance and anxiety is, we can break it. The key lies within the cycle itself.
How to Break The Cycle of Anxiety and Avoidance
Thoughts about the people and things that make us anxious do increase anxiety and avoidance. Those very thoughts, though, are the keys to breaking the cycle and reducing anxiety and fear. Use the keys to unlock your doors to freedom.
To turn the key, you must first insert it into the keyhole. At first, you’ll discover surface-level thoughts that are easily overrun by anxiety. Have you ever tried to turn a key and unlock a door when the key is only partially inserted? It doesn’t work. You have to insert it completely.
It’s the same with anxiety, anxious thoughts, and avoidance. Buried under all of the worries, uncertainties, what-ifs, and fears lie your hopes, dreams, wisdom, and more—the whole of you. The heart of all of it—the key, the hole, the stuff inside the hole, the stuff beyond the locked door, and you yourself—are meaning and purpose.
When you identify and embrace your greater purpose, that which gives meaning to your life, you begin to break that cycle of anxiety and avoidance. The more you intentionally think about your purpose, the more your thoughts shift toward meaning. The more you focus on meaning, the less you are focusing on anxiety. Purpose and meaning are so much more powerful than anxiety, stress, depression, and any other problems and challenges we face. Honing our sense of purpose doesn’t directly “cure” anything, but it allows us to transcend our struggles and live well anyway.
Develop your purpose and meaning thoughtfully. Consider question such as:
- What brings you joy?
- What is important to you?
- What actions make you feel good about yourself and the world?
- What do you value?
These are just a few thoughts along the path of meaning-making. When we have a sense of greater purpose, it becomes possible (not necessarily easy, at least initially) to stop avoiding. Develop your reason, your purpose, your “why,” and the “how” will follow. (Check out Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: Why and How. It’s more about purpose than it is the holiday.)
My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel tells the story of Brian Cunningham, a man who has lived with debilitating anxiety and avoidant personality disorder and a sense of stranger danger for nearly all of his 37 years. It isn’t until he discovers meaning that he begins to, little by little, create freedom from his own prison.
Usually, I mow my small front lawn and trim the hedges on Monday mornings. The weekends are a bad time for me to do this because one, I’m typically camping, and two, there are more neighbors out and about on the weekends than on a Monday morning. I don’t know my neighbors. I’ve never had to talk to them. I certainly don’t want to change that now after seventeen years of planned isolation. However, I’m home this Sunday because of my failed camping trip. Further, I have a dreaded appointment with Dr. Greene tomorrow and thus will be unable to perform my Monday lawn maintenance. That’s how I came to be working in the front yard today when I saw Abigail Harris trudging down the sidewalk across the street.
My need to hide from people is so deeply ingrained that it has become instinctive. Automatically upon spotting her, I duck behind the cluster of large rhododendron bushes I’m pruning at the moment. I peer around the side of one of the bushes and see her shuffling slowly down the walk, head down. I wonder where those small pink and purple tennis shoes are taking her. I’ll learn the answer to that shortly because it is reprehensible for me to be cowering behind a bush while there is a tired-looking seven-year-old child walking slowly down a sidewalk all alone.
Crossing my fingers that nobody steps outside and approaches me to see what’s going on, I take a deep breath and dash out from behind the bush and run across the street. My intent is to get to Abigail immediately, before anything bad happens to her.
It’s true. The cycle of anxiety and avoidance becomes so strong that it’s automatic, almost instinctive. Your purpose and meaning, though, are strong enough to turn the key, break the cycle, and set yourself free. What brings you meaning? How will you develop it? What will it be like for you when anxiety and avoidance are history?
Tune in to the Wellbeing & Words YouTube channel to hear more about meaning and a different passage from My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel.
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