By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health; I’m Jeremy Godwin and every week I look at one aspect of better mental health and I share practical and straightforward advice that you can apply immediately to improve your wellbeing.
Today I’m talking about how to manage avoidance behaviours for better mental health — so get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 37 of Better Mental Health on YouTube — in this latest episode I’m sharing 5 simple tips for better mental health at work.
Watch the episode below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 3 October, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 99, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week I’m talking about avoidance and I’ll be discussing what avoidance is, why it has a negative impact on your mental health, and how to manage avoidance in a healthy way.
Before I start, two quick updates. First, in my latest Better Mental Health video on YouTube I’m sharing five simple ideas for improving your mental health at work (and these are different tips than what I have shared on the topic previously). The great thing about these tips is that you can put them into practice immediately and they don’t take a huge amount of time, but have an enormous impact on your mental health. Watch the video now on YouTube; you’ll find it linked in the description for this episode or just head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/youtube where you’ll find it along with all of my past videos… and take a moment to subscribe to my YouTube channel while you’re at it, so you never miss an episode!
My second update is to say a quick congratulations to the four people who won prizes in my recent #LTAMH100 giveaway; there were two winners from the USA, one from Australia and one from Poland, and they each won one of my favourite books about cultivating a positive mindset. A big ‘thank you!’ to everyone who entered and I really appreciate you helping me to celebrate the 100th episode of this podcast, which is coming next week!
So, with all that covered, on with this week’s episode about avoidance…
Sometimes it can seem to be easier to avoid our challenges or difficult situations we might be dealing with rather than confronting them, however the issue with that is that avoiding problems very often winds up making them worse… or it results in you spending ages thinking that the situation is worse than it actually is, until you eventually deal with it and realise it wasn’t actually so bad after all. Either way, it creates a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering for yourself… and those are two things that I go out of my way to try and avoid!
So this week I’m going to be exploring why we can go into avoidance mode and, more importantly, how to deal with avoidance in a healthier way. There are actually a few different interpretations of the term ‘avoidance’, so we had probably better begin with some definitions. So, let’s talk about…
What is avoidance?
In general, avoidance is “the action of keeping away from or not doing something” or preventing something from happening (and that’s from the Oxford Dictionary). And although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it’s often about self-preservation and avoiding harm, the difficulty comes when we avoid any kind of forward momentum; for example, when we avoid making decisions or we avoid taking action for fear of the outcome or potential consequences. In general, avoidance behaviours involve trying to avoid stressful or potentially-stressful situations or actions rather than actually dealing with them.
Avoidance can often go hand-in-hand with worry, which I talked about in Episode 95, and overthinking, which I explored back in Episode 4, and the piece here is about recognising when it is happening — and why it’s happening — so that we can confront it, process it and resolve it.
Let me just be very clear here that consciously avoiding harm is a good thing — we avoid pain because it’s painful (funny that!) and we (hopefully) avoid bad habits because we know that they have a damaging effect on our wellbeing in the long-term. But what we’re discussing today is more about the dangers of avoiding any kind of decision making or avoiding taking action that is actually in our best interests.
Let me share a quote from an article in PsychCentral about avoidance; the quote is:
“It’s normal for human beings to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Some of the ways in which we seek to avoid pain are adaptive or healthy. For example, many of us take precautions with our bodies in terms of dietary and lifestyle choices to avoid health problems… But avoidance becomes tricky and potentially problematic when it is applied to our inner world. The elaborate ways we turn away from and avoid difficult emotions can get us into trouble that can wind up worse than the emotions from which we were running.”Source: https://psychcentral.com/pro/the-five-types-of-avoidance#1
And the link for that is in the transcript. So the bit I really want to emphasise there is that avoidance can often end up making things far worse than they might have been if we had just dealt with whatever it was in the first place (and, spoiler alert, I’ll be revisiting that idea in the next section of this episode about why dealing with this stuff matters).
So when we look at this from a psychological and emotional-wellbeing perspective, there are a number of different types of avoidance behaviours. Five were listed in that article I just mentioned and I want to share them briefly; they are:
- Situational avoidance: this means avoiding specific situations (such as avoiding social activities or leaving a job every time there is conflict)
- Cognitive avoidance: this is about avoiding internal events, such as unpleasant or distressing thoughts or memories (and it can often show up as trying to ‘numb’ your thoughts or it can manifest as anxious behaviours like worry and rumination)
- Protective avoidance: this refers to the use of excessive safety behaviours like obsessive-compulsiveness or perfectionism (which I discussed last week in Episode 98) or, at the other end of the spectrum, it can show up as procrastination
- Somatic avoidance: this refers to a combination of mental and physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate and distressing thoughts whilst feeling anxious
- Substitution avoidance: this refers to trying to substitute one feeling with another, such as covering up grief with anger
And, again, you’ll find the link for that article in the transcript which is available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes.
So that leads me to the next part of this episode…
Why does avoidance have a negative impact on your mental health?
And I hate to be the one to have to break this to you, but avoiding a problem does not make it magically disappear — you’re not Houdini, and that rabbit is not going back into the hat! The only way to deal with a problem is to deal with it; denial does nothing other than make the problem linger, and when things linger they tend to grow in size and complexity.
Avoidance keeps you stuck. There was a wonderful quote I came across on PsychologyTools.com while researching this episode that said, “avoidance and escape behaviors remove the opportunity to disconfirm negative beliefs” (and the article is linked in the transcript https://www.psychologytools.com/professional/mechanisms/avoidance/) and what that means more generally is that when we confront things we have a high chance of discovering that whatever we were concerned about was nothing more than a worry; in other words, most of our worries and fears just aren’t going to come true… but if you avoid a situation or taking action, you deny yourself of the opportunity to discover positive outcomes. It’s like staying in a relationship that you’re not happy with just because of being concerned that you may never find someone again; sure, that’s always a possibility but probably not likely, but even if that does happen… is that actually a worse outcome than being stuck in a relationship where you feel unhappy or unfulfilled? No, it’s not! So rather than avoiding the so-called ‘worst-case scenario’ by not taking any action at all, you’re actually creating your own misery by not moving forward. If nothing changes, then nothing changes… you can either stay stuck, which will only lead to misery and suffering, or you can take small steps to move forward so you can resolve or release the issue and get on with your life.
And how do you do that? Well, that sounds like the perfect way to transition into the how-to part of today’s episode! So, let’s talk about…
How to manage avoidance in a healthy way
And I’m going to start this section with a piece of advice I usually offer at the end of the how-to part, and that is…
Work with a professional — and the reason why I’m beginning with this today (instead of ending with it) is that, for some of us, avoiding working with a professional (like a therapist, counsellor or coach, depending on your situation and needs) can be a sign of avoidance in and of itself; you might know you need to do some work on avoidant tendencies or you might want to, but the idea of having to work through this stuff with a stranger may make you feel uncomfortable so you avoid it all together. Look, I get it, and it takes time to find someone you feel comfortable with… but please hear me when I tell you that getting objective support from a third party (who has no emotional investment in you and who is only focused on helping you shine a light on the truth of your situation) can be just what you need to pick up on recurring patterns of avoidant behaviours so you can identify ways to address it. I’m not saying that the only way to deal with this stuff is with a professional (and I’m about to share a bunch of tips for you to apply yourself) but it’s important that you have support as you work your way through this stuff, so rather than avoiding feeling a bit awkward while you try to find a professional that feels like a good fit, put in the time and effort because it will deliver massive benefits in the long term.
OK, so with that covered, now let’s get into some things you can do yourself to manage avoidance behaviours, beginning with…
Self awareness — which is a fairly frequent piece of advice here on Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and I even covered it in detail back in Episode 62), and the focus here is about knowing yourself and being honest about any tendencies you may have towards avoidance behaviours. I suggest reflecting and taking some notes while you consider what types of situations or feelings may be present for you if and when you go into avoidance mode, and then looking at your responses in more detail to consider why you might respond in that way. For example: if you go into shut-down mode whenever there is a particular type of task you need to complete, why? What is it about that type of task that makes you feel like you cannot take action or move forward? This is about really digging into whatever is going on for you and understanding the root cause (because I can almost guarantee you that avoidant behaviour stems from deeper, unresolved issues and isn’t just about the specific situation or task that you’re avoiding). Know yourself to grow yourself (that sounds so cheesy but I don’t care, I’m sticking with it!). Next…
Learn to be OK with discomfort — look, I know that feeling uncomfortable is not a great sensation but it’s a part of growth; when you learn to accept discomfort and find ways to resolve it, you’re helping yourself to grow and you’re taking important steps towards building greater self-confidence, self-worth, self-respect and self-esteem. When you stay in your comfort zone nothing changes — and as I’ve said about 50 million times before, when nothing changes nothing changes. I have a few episodes which I think you might find helpful to review: Episode 52, about change; Episode 51, about perseverance; and Episode 36, about acceptance. So, my next point is…
Face the truth — and truth is a topic I explored in Episode 72 of this podcast, where I pointed out that avoiding confrontation isn’t doing you any favours in the long run (and I’m referring to confrontation with others as well as confronting yourself about the situation or whatever you’re feeling). Rather than pretending there isn’t something that needs to be done or that has to be addressed, face it and focus on reality; the situation is the situation, and it will only change if you change it. So, be truthful with yourself and deal with things as they are rather than how you wish they were. So, my next point is…
Know that running is not a resolution — because it’s not. When you run from your problems or leave difficult situations without at least attempting to resolve them, you’ll often find that the same kind of thing comes up for you time and time again until you eventually learn what you need to learn and change what you need to change. The sooner you do that, the better it will be for yourself. One way to do that is with my next point…
Look at the situation objectively — let me tell you a quick story here before I explain what I mean: a few years ago I transferred my superannuation into a self-managed fund (don’t get me started on the boring complexities of Australian superannuation law!) and it was challenging but I managed to navigate my way through it all. Then things became really challenging at work and at home, and around the same time I needed to do the first annual tax return and audit for the fund… and I went into total shut-down mode. I completely avoided it and pretended it just wasn’t a thing, even though I had a reminder popping up on my phone daily (and I kept on adjusting the date on the reminder so it would come up again the next day, then the day after that, and so on) — and this went on for six whole months. Seriously. Six months of seeing that reminder every single day and feeling so overwhelmed by where to even start that I would defer it to the following day… which meant I did that to myself roughly 180 times. Eventually I was just days away from the deadline to engage an accountant and auditor, so I ripped off the Band-Aid and made the call I had to make… and within five minutes I had found someone who sent me all the information I needed and the entire process of getting it done, end to end, took only a few days. But hear what I just said: I tortured myself for six months over something that only took five minutes to do. So here’s my point; actually, I have two. First, do not ever do what I did and put yourself through that kind of torture and misery for half a year! And, secondly, be objective about the situation: if a small action (like a five minute phone call) is going to resolve some or all of the situation, just do it. Now. Pause this podcast, make that call or do that thing and then come back and listen to the rest of this episode. Because all you’re doing is delaying action, which is making things far worse for yourself than just doing the thing. So do it. Now. No, seriously… NOW! And, on a personal note, I am very glad to say that I actually learned from that awful experience from a few years ago and I’m in a much better place… and if I’m tempted to go into avoidance mode now, I remind myself of the many months of self-induced torment that could have been resolved with just a five minute phone call! OK, so now that story time is over, my next point is…
Add up the costs of avoidance — and this is a bit of a continuation from the last one but I want to be really specific here: figure out how much time and energy you’re wasting, and the impact it’s having on your work or your relationships (or both), and be honest with yourself. I mean, do it with love and kindness towards yourself, but if you’re going to confront this stuff then you have to be entirely honest about it, regardless of how shameful it might feel. I mean, I’m embarrassed to admit I wasted six months of my life on something that could have been done and dusted in a few minutes (but I’m pragmatic enough to know I was having a tough time of it in general back then, so that was just a symptom of deeper issues)… but even though I feel a bit sheepish about all of that, I’d rather be honest with myself (and with you) about the damage my actions caused so that I learn from it in the future. When you work out what the costs are of your avoidant behaviour, it’s an opportunity to give yourself a firm wake-up call and you can use that to drive you to take action. So, speaking of action, let’s talk through three steps you can take to manage most (if not all) situations, starting with:
Begin at the beginning — to know where you need to go, you have to objectively identify where you are and how you got there. This is not about bullying yourself or beating yourself up over whatever has or hasn’t happened in the past, but instead I’m talking about taking an honest look at where you’re at today. If you have situations or issues that you’ve been avoiding dealing with, then the fact is they need to be addressed (because they will not just resolve themselves). Make a list of specific things that need to be sorted out and then prioritise them, and also consider how long you think they will take to resolve and what resources or support you may need to deal with each one. This is the foundation of my next point, which is…
Create a plan — take the list you brainstormed before and turn it into an action plan that is realistic; in other words, don’t try to do everything all at once. Instead, take small steps each day to resolve outstanding issues that you have been avoiding and when new issues arise, factor them in (and jump on them immediately to prevent them from adding to your workload). If all of that sounds like hard work… well, it is! But it will pay off, and as you see your plan come together you can have a better idea of how you’re going to resolve things over the coming weeks and months. And that leads me to the next step, which is…
Do the work — plans are great but they then need to be turned into action in order for anything to happen, so break everything down into small steps and do what needs to be done. Even just 5-10 minutes a day of effort can add up to make an enormous difference, so do the work and make it a priority. As you see the results of your efforts, you should hopefully begin to feel a sense of achievement and pride that can then help you to recognise that action, rather than avoidance, is what helps to create momentum and it guides you towards being the best version of yourself possible.
And so I said there were three steps but now I’m going to be cheeky and add in a bonus step (and any of you who have ever watched one of my Better Mental Health videos on YouTube will know that I find it virtually impossible not to offer a bonus tip or two, so consider that a habit at this point!)… the bonus step is:
Review the ‘why?’ and address it long-term — so you know how I said before to begin at the beginning by identifying where you are and how you got there in an objective way? Well, once you have some forward momentum happening in terms of addressing stuff that you’ve been avoiding, I want you to go back and explore the ‘why’ because this is about dealing with the root cause (or causes) of issues in order to address them once and for all (so they don’t come back and haunt you later on!). Why do you go into avoidance mode? Is it usually the same reason, or are there multiple causes? Figure out what is really going on and work through the cause. For example, if you procrastinate regularly… are you overwhelmed? Are you doubting yourself? Are you afraid of failure… or maybe afraid of success? There are many possible reasons why you might be defaulting to avoidant behaviours sometimes (or a lot of the time!), so identify why and then deal with that stuff. You might find it helpful to work on it with a therapist or counsellor, who can guide you objectively and challenge you to look at things from different angles, and of course there are lots of things you can do as well. Depending on what your situation is, you might find some of my past episodes helpful such as:
- Episode 84: Let’s Talk About… Failure
- Episode 65: Let’s Talk About… Resistance
- Episode 91: Let’s Talk About… Triggers
- Episode 10: Let’s Talk About… Fear
- Episode 35: Let’s Talk About… Insecurity
Look, I could probably sit here and list my whole back catalogue of episodes so I suggest heading to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes and taking a look at the topics to see what might be helpful for you… because this stuff doesn’t need to follow you around for the rest of your life; like anything it takes time, effort and perseverance to process it and address it, but the hard work will pay off and it will make things so much better for you.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to avoidance and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Thoughts are not facts. Often when we feel challenged or confronted by a situation, our minds might tell us that it’s easier to just avoid dealing with it… but that simply is not true. When you take action to resolve issues, you are investing in your future. No matter how uncomfortable things might seem when you’re in it (and I know confrontation isn’t exactly a pleasant experience!), it’s preferable to have a little short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain. Instead of avoiding things and making life more difficult for yourself in the future, challenge yourself every day to make the choices that are going to be in your best interests; to act, rather than avoid.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”Unknown
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about the future. Since next week will be the 100th episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and since it’s being released a few days after the two-year anniversary of this show), ‘the future’ felt like a fitting topic to discuss; not in the context of this show (which is not going anywhere!), but in terms of how our hopes and fears for the future can often shape what we do and don’t do here in the present. Finding the right balance between hope for the future and living for today takes work, and that’s what I want to really focus in on next time (along with how to do that when there is so much uncertainty about the future). So next week I’ll be talking about what the future is (and what it isn’t), why we need to view the future in an objective way, and how to create a healthy future for yourself.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 10th of October, 2021. And on Wednesday, catch the latest episode of Better Mental Health on YouTube or IGTV, or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my free mailing list for podcast transcripts and my weekly newsletter. You’ll also find the link in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re listening to me on.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.