Understanding and Overcoming Avoidance Behaviors

Written by Dr. Paul Kelly, C.Psych.              October 16, 2023

Understanding and Overcoming Avoidance Behavior

  • Have you ever avoided a situation or person because you didn’t want to feel anxious, sad, or embarrassed?
  • Do you block uncomfortable thoughts with music or exercise to avoid uncomfortable feelings?
  • Is your life constricted because of a habitual pattern of avoiding uncomfortable emotions?
  • You might been experiencing avoidance behavior. It is also called avoidance coping or escape coping.
  • It can seem to work in the short-term, but it has long-term consequences that are bad for your mental health.
  • Here’s the good news: You can overcome avoidance behaviour by learning adaptive coping strategies. I will show you how. Go to the bottom of this article for advice and recommendations.
  • My Personal Story is near the end of the article.


The Nature of Avoidance Behavior

  1. Avoidance behaviour is anything you do to avoid, or mute the strength of  a negative emotion.
  2. For example, you avoid a situation or thought that might trigger a difficult emotion.
  3. Anxiety, sadness, anger, fear, guilt, or shame can all make us feel uncomfortable.
  4. You might use avoidance to reduce the discomfort. This is understandable.
  • What are the Pros and Cons of Avoidance Behaviours?
  1. Avoidance is an attempt to reduce the occurrence or intensity of negative emotions.
  2. It can have short-term benefits. For example, you can feel better in the moment because you are avoiding or ignoring something.
  3. However, these unhealthy coping strategies often increase anxiety or depression.
  4. Avoidance can lock us into a vicious cycle of ongoing anxiety or depression.
  5. When we avoid situations, we miss an opportunity to develop healthier coping strategies.
  6. That is why avoidance behaviors are bad for us in the long run.

How this Article Can Help You Overcoming Avoidance Behaviors

  1. It will be easier for you to recognize avoidance behaviors if you know about the different types.
  2. I will show you how to recognize your triggers.  Then, you can catch avoidance behaviors when it is easier to overcome them.
  3. I will teach you simple coping strategies to neutralize avoidance behaviors.

Types of Avoidance Behaviors

There are three types of avoidance behaviors:

  1. Social Avoidance
  2. Cognitive Avoidance
  3. Behavioral Avoidance

Read the next section to learn more about each type.  This information will help you recognize avoidance behaviors. Then it will be easier to replace them with healthier, more adaptive actions.

  1. Social Avoidance

Social avoidance refers to evading social situations or interactions to prevent uncomfortable feelings.  Common feelings are anxiety, embarrassment, or humiliation. You might turn down invitations to social gatherings. Or, limit eye contact to prevent people from trying to talk to you.

Relationships can become strained because of social avoidance. If you avoid social contact, it can be hard to communicate.

Overcoming social avoidance involves gradually exposing oneself to social situations. You can learn new strategies to succeed at this.  There are also special skills training programs for people with Social Anxiety Disorder.

  1. Cognitive Avoidance

Cognitive avoidance involves blocking or ignoring certain thoughts or concepts to prevent distress. Examples of cognitive avoidance strategies include distraction, worry, and thought suppression. These mental strategies can temporarily block distressing thoughts or emotions. but they usually lead to heightened anxiety and stress. Mindfulness can help you face uncomfortable thoughts without being overwhelmed by them.

  1. Behavioral Avoidance

Here are three kinds of behavioral avoidance:

  • Overt avoidance.  Here are some examples: Walking instead of using public transit due to fear of panic attacks. Leave a room when you see someone who makes you uncomfortable.
  • Subtle behavioral avoidance. Here are some examples: Wear headphones to prevent people from speaking to you. Text at a party to avoid small talk.
  • Safety Signals. Here are some examples: Carrying anxiety medication ‘just in case’. Bring a ‘safety’ person to an uncomfortable situation.

Strategies for Overcoming Avoidance Behavior

Here are some steps that you can take to start to overcome Avoidance Behaviours.

  1. Identifying Triggers
  2. Practice Alternative Actions to Replace Avoidance Behaviors
  3. Use Mindfulness Techniques
  1. Identifying Triggers
  • It is not your fault that your brain has picked up the habit of avoidance behaviors. So, you don’t need to blame yourself for them.
  • Try to be open and curious so you learn what triggers avoidance behaviors in your life.
  • Watch what you do when you start to have an uncomfortable feeling or physical sensation. Then you can identify your triggers.
  • For example, do you leave the situation? Look at your phone so you are ‘not fully there’? Or, do something to distract yourself?
  • Keep track of the situations or people that trigger you. Make a list of you personal triggers. Then it will be easier for you to notice when an avoidance behavior has started.
  • Be kind and patient about this.
  • You may be surprised at how much avoidance you find. Don’t judge yourself for that. Instead, focus on starting to gain control.
  • You don’t have to change everything all at once.
  • Pick one behavior at a time – be mindful and try an alternative action.
  • See the next step for details.
  1. Practice Alternative Actions to Replace Avoidance Behaviors
  • Dr. David Barlow is an expert on avoidance behavior. He ecommends that you do something different – an alternative action – instead of avoiding.
  • It is hard to stop a behavior without having something else to do.
  • It is easier to overcome avoidance behavior by engaging in an alternate behavior.
  • Let’s look at some examples of alternative behaviors. These example can inspire you to devise your own alternate behaviors – ones that will fit in with your life.
  • Fear. Instead of avoiding people or places, stay in the situation and speak calmly.
  • Sadness. Instead of withdrawing to nap, schedule activities. Instead of avoiding eye contact, make eye contact. Instead of moving slowly, be active to energize your body.
  • Anxiety. Instead of over-preparing, set a time limit. Instead of worrying/ruminating, resist reassurance seeking by talking about something else. Instead of avoiding the situation, face it and trust that you can cope.
  • Guilt/Shame. Instead of withdrawing, contact others. Instead of avoiding eye contact, make eye contact. Instead of whispering, use your full voice.
  1. Use Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness can help you notice when you are starting an avoidance behavior. After you notice you can choose an alternative action.

  • Here is a simple way to start: Pause. Bring your attention inward. Notice your sensations, emotions and thoughts.
  • Just note them without trying to change them.
  • Then, focus your attention on a sensation.
  • For example, notice the weight of your feet on the floor, or the feeling of breath coming and going from your body.
  • This mindfulness technique is called Anchoring in the Present.

When you accept your emotions and sensations, you are not avoiding them. This is the first step. Then, pick an Alternative Action and do it, instead of using a habitual avoidance behavior.

This simple mindfulness approach can be very helpful. Be patient with yourself. Start by trying it 3 times a day.

My Personal Story: Why I Care About Helping for Avoidance Behavior

When I was young and unsure of myself, I worked the midnight shift as an orderly in a chronic care hospital. I was very shy and easily embarrassed. Working the night shift, when the patients were asleep, was an avoidance behavior for me. When I felt ready, I switched to day shifts and started part-time studies at Brock University. I also started to do daily Zen meditation. It is a kind of mindfulness practice. I did not know it back then, but I was using two of the strategies that Dr. David Barlow recommended. They were Alternate Actions and Mindfulness. These strategies and new behaviors got me started for a better life. Eventually, I was ready to go to graduate school and train to be a psychologist. I wanted to share this story to let you know that avoidance behaviors can be overcome.

Final Thoughts:

  1. Avoidance behaviors can be overcome with practice. It takes time, and there will be setbacks. But you will be able to it.
  2. In the Sources below, I list two Workbooks by Dr. David Barlow. Both are excellent. Here are some free handouts and homework forms from Dr. Barlow. Have a look and buy one of his workbooks if you would like more advice.
  3. The resources I recommend can be used for a self-help. Remember, self-help does not mean – don’t get help from anybody else! At the very least talk with a trusted friend or family member. Let them know how you feel and what you are doing to help yourself. Ask if  they could be a ‘study buddy’ – read through the material with you and discuss it. Another option would be to get support from a cognitive behavior therapist. A CBT therapist would be worth considering if you decide that you want more guidance than a book can give.


I selected and reviewed all the sources for this article. I also used my judgment based on decades of clinical experience treating avoidance behavior.  I wish you well. Dr. Kelly

  1. Barlow, D.H. et al. Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders: Workbook, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 2018.
  2. Barlow, D.H. & Craske, M.G.. Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic: Workbook, Fifth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2022.
  3. Leventhal, A.M. Sadness, Depression, and Avoidance Behavior, Behavior Modification, Vol. 32, Issue 6, 759-779. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445508317167
  4. Lin, J. Editorial: The etiology and pathogenesis of affective disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 18 July 2023. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1233256