It’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of anxiety and avoidance. 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. Let’s explore how to stop avoiding.
The First Step: Understand the Cycle of Anxiety and Avoidance
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. However, avoiding troublesome situations only reduces fear and worry temporarily. The action of avoiding the slight reward (a little bit less anxious thoughts and feelings) reinforces for us two things:
- Avoidance works
- There truly is a reason to avoid something
Anxiety and avoidance feed on each other. This means that, over time, anxiety becomes stronger and the behavior of avoidance increases. It becomes a vicious, life-limiting, misery-inducing cycle.
Happily, once you understand the cycle of avoidance and anxiety, you can take action to break it. The key lies within the cycle itself.
How to Break The Cycle: Create Meaning
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.
Purpose and Meaning Are Greater than Anxiety and Avoidance
When you identify and embrace your greater purpose, that which gives meaning to your life, you begin to break that cycle. 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.
It’s true. The anxiety-avoidance cycle 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 you embrace your life freely?