Avoidance keeps worry going and stops you living

Worried-looking pug sitting wrapped in a check blanket

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Worry happens in your brain. It makes you imagine terrible things that could happen. Because worry is so tiring, you can be tricked into thinking you’re doing something to stop these imagined disasters. But you’re not. 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.

Many naive optimists prefer to think unrealistically positive thoughts, rather than dwelling on bad things that could happen. However, they’re also probably avoiding the discomfort that worry produces. Without realising, they block anything anxiety-provoking out of their awareness.  

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 faint on the floor in front of everyone? 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 define exactly what you think might happen. So you can’t work out if it’s really going to happen or not, or if it even matters. 

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. And 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, 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 keep doing things that make us feel better. And not thinking about public speaking seems to make you feel better – for a while.

And there’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

So the thoughts still keep coming back, no matter how hard you try to get rid of them.

Now you’re caught in this eternal cycle:

Horrible thoughts → horrible feelings → stamping down or 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. 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 all day long. Or if you tried to repress your worries 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 another, bigger problem. 

Because in the end, avoidance of anything that reminds you of your worries, 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.

So you think, “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 after all. 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.  

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