Avoidance keeps worry going and stops you living
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Worry happens in your brain. It makes you imagine terrible things that could happen. Because worry tires you out, you may be tricked into believing it can stop these imagined disasters. But it doesn’t. Instead, worry makes you more likely to avoid taking effective action. And so your life slowly falls to pieces. Learn how avoidance keeps worry going and stops you living.
If you’re a worrier, you don’t want to think about what your fears really mean. So you avoid analysing whether they’re likely to happen or not. Or if there’s anything you can do to prevent them.
Worriers often don’t define fears clearly
Sometimes you don’t even spell out to yourself what you’re really scared of.
For instance, you’re worried you’ll look a fool if you give a speech. But what does “looking a fool” mean exactly? That you’ll dance round like a clown? You’ll break down and start sobbing? Go a complete blank and not speak at all? Or something else entirely?
Because you’re so terrified of public speaking, you can’t bear to think of exactly what might happen. All you know is that you feel shaky and tense as soon as you think about it. Your chest gets tight, you can’t breathe, and your thoughts fog up.
So you shove those unpleasant thoughts and feelings away as fast as you can. That makes you feel a little better for a few seconds or minutes.
You can’t avoid unpleasant thoughts forever
The trouble is, those sensations and thoughts snap back again. And not just once or twice. Over and over. And every time, you shove them away again.
Each time you push the thoughts away, you feel a little better. It’s like a tiny reward that takes away the horrible feelings. So you keep doing the same thing over and over.
That’s because we normally continue to do things that make us feel better. And not thinking about public speaking seems to feel better – for a while.
But that’s the problem.
Avoiding those thoughts only makes you feel better for a while. It’s not a complete fix. And the more you push those thoughts and sensations away, the more they come back. And the harder you have to stamp them down to get rid of them again.
Avoidance keeps worry going, and makes these unpleasant thoughts rebound.
Avoidance causes thoughts to rebound
The problem is, the thoughts still keep coming back, no matter how hard you try to get rid of them. So you’re caught in this eternal cycle:
Horrible thoughts → horrible feelings → stamping down/trying to get rid of the thoughts → even more thoughts → even more feelings → stamping them down even more → stronger and stronger thoughts and feelings → and so on.
So it seems that either trying to get rid of or repressing thoughts doesn’t work. That’s actually been shown by Daniel Wegner and his colleagues in a famous experiment. Originally, they told people not to think of a white bear for a certain time.
Now that doesn’t sound that difficult, does it? So try it yourself now for a minute. Close your eyes and focus on NOT thinking of a white bear. You mustn’t let any thoughts of white bears into your mind.
How did that go?
You may have had some limited success. But chances are you had to work very hard to distract yourself from thinking about those bears. And if you gave yourself strict instructions not to think of those bears, you probably ended up with a bunch of white bears bouncing round your brain. The thoughts or images rebounded more often, and more strongly.
As Wegner found, it’s very hard to get rid of thoughts that you don’t want. Imagine how much energy you’d have to use to distract yourself from unpleasant thoughts or worries all day long. Or if you tried to repress them all the time. You wouldn’t have the mental energy to do much else.
Anyway, you’d have very little success over the longer term. The worries you’re trying to control would come back stronger and more often.
Avoidance of worries doesn’t work
So avoidance of unpleasant thoughts like worries doesn’t work. Stamping down horrible thoughts and emotions doesn’t work. In fact, avoidance keeps worry going, and makes you feel worse instead of better.
And you have to use so much energy managing these worries and associated feelings that you can’t do much else. But you still don’t know how to handle them. So you start to avoid anything that even reminds you of your worries. So now your avoidance has spread to more things that just your original worries. And that in turn becomes a problem.
Because in the end, avoidance of anything that reminds you of your worries you means you avoid life itself.
You become paralysed by fear of your fears. Or at taking the first steps to solve an issue. You don’t know what to do, and you’re sure you’ll mess it up anyway.
What’s the point? It’s easier to retreat, and avoid these awful feelings. So what if you lose that job opportunity? So what if you never get invited out again?
At least you won’t have to worry so much. Although in fact, you don’t seem to be able to stop worrying either. Each time you try not to think of something unpleasant, it pops right back into your mind. Then you’re right back in that avoidance cycle again.
So avoidance keeps worry going, and affects your ability to cope with the challenges of everyday life. As we’ll see in the next article, avoidance shrinks your world.