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Mind by Design

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Avoidance Coping: The Silent Culprit of the Anxiety & Fear Response

Is there something you need to do, but maybe it’s overwhelming, intimidating, annoying or even scary so it just keeps getting pushed further down the to-do list. Every time we avoid something, big or small, we’re teaching our brain that we can’t handle those scary things. This may not seem like a big deal for little things, but those little things are what add to our confidence for when we need to overcome the really difficult things. This novel theory is called “Avoidance Coping”. It’s a maladaptive way we try to deal with stress, fear or anxiety. However, it only perpetuates the cycle of distress. 

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Avoidance Coping results in
Avoidant Behaviors

If we face the things that scare us head-on, our brain actually rewires as it learns that we are competent, strong and resilient. Our brains are very flexible and exist for the sole purpose of learning how to keep us alive. However, it can learn some inaccurate information. Therefore, we have to be cognizant of what we are teaching out brains, and if we’re teaching it to avoid coping through our avoidant behaviors, our brain will continue to alert us so we act in that avoidant way. 

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The lesson

The more we face our fears, the less intense fear and anxiety will be in the future because our brain is learning that the fear-stimulus doesn’t actually require the intense stress response. The worst thing we can do is avoid; avoidance only fuels the fire of anxiety.

Fear is a Haunted House

Below is my metaphor for phobias & anxiety that I share with my clients as we prepare to overcome avoidance & fear.

Fear is just like a haunted house. We line up waiting for our turn, ready to be scared. Rationally, we are well aware that it is fake, and just for thrills. But that’s the kicker!  We know it’s all fake, but the moment that zombie jumps out, we scream! The hairs on the back of our beck stand up, our heart races, eyes wide, muscles tense and somehow our feet are moving faster than we can keep up with!
So why are we so scared? We know it’s fake, but our bodily response is 100% real. 

Now, think about the people who don’t have a fear response.
Who is it at the haunted house that seems bored, that shows no startle response? 
The workers.

It’s not because the workers are ‘tougher’ or ‘more courageous’, and it’s definitely not because they know it’s fake, because remember, we also know it’s fake. do too. The reason that the workers at the haunted house don’t have a startle response is because they are repeatedly exposed to the scary things. In fact, they are so used to being exposed to the scary ghouls and goblins that they become *desensitized*, even bored by it.

How does Avoidance come up in yuour life?

What are you afraid of– big or small, real or fake. Would it be just as scary the 5th time you did it? The 10th? How many times would you have to do the scary thing to be bored by it?

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The opposite of fear is not courage

Courage is our defense that gets us past fear to our true goal of boredom. Yes, boredom. When something elicits no response from us, when we couldn’t even be bothered, we’ve actually overcome the fear. Now, we might need to do that a few times over to reinforce our ‘unbothered’ response, but hey, the more we do it, the easier it gets!

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Ditch the Avoidance Coping

In VR therapy, I’ve asked clients to tell me when they start daydreaming during an exposure exercise. They usually look at me perplexed, but that’s when I know that their brain has officially un-learned the fear response and has returned to baseline.

Some fears and phobias, like all things mental health, can be more complex and require a trained therapist’s support to overcome. That’s why the therapists at Mind by Design are trained in the neuro-based treatment for OCD and phobias, along with mindfulness and trauma informed care. When it comes to fear, we got you covered. Reach out (even if that scares you 😎)

Stay Fierce 

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