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The Most Effective Ways to Combat Psychological Avoidance

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than 40 million adults in the U.S. (19.1%) have dealt with an anxiety disorder in the past year, making it the most common mental health condition in the country. And this figure only takes into account those who sought help and received an official diagnosis from a clinician—not the millions of others who are faced with everyday anxiety.
But according to Luana Marques, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, it’s not anxiety that’s holding us back: It’s how we react to it. Many people, she says, respond to this type of stress with psychological avoidance. Here’s what to know about psychological avoidance, and how to combat it.
What is psychological avoidance?
Psychological avoidance refers to when people respond to a perceived threat in a way that makes them feel better in the moment, but ultimately, has negative consequences.
According to Marques, who coined the term, three common signs of psychological avoidance are retreating, reacting, and remaining.
How to combat psychological avoidance
In an article for CNBC Make It, Marques provides the following strategies for dealing with the most common forms of psychological avoidance:
Retreating
We tend to think in terms of “fight, flight, or freeze” when it comes to dealing with anxiety, but Marques says that retreating is a more subtle version of flight. This can include things like having a glass of wine (or a few) to temporarily escape from everyday stresses, or calling in sick t o avoid giving a presentation at work .
Instead of retreating, Marques recommends identifying one of the thoughts or fears driving your anxiety and asking yourself, “What data do I have to back this up?” or, “What would my best friend say in this situation?” “The empirical evidence you come up with can help pull you out of that harmful mindset,” she says.
Reacting
This involves responding to anxiety with in-the-moment, knee-jerk reactions, like flying off the handle at a meeting if you feel attacked and want to defend yourself immediately. Marques suggests taking a step back—and a breath (or a few)—before responding to the situation. “The first step is to pause, then approach your discomfort rather than try to eliminate it,” she says.
Remaining
This is the equivalent of the “freeze” anxiety response. “It’s the inclination to stay put in uncomfortable situations, like an unhealthy relationship or a job that is mentally and physically draining,” Marques explains.
But instead of trying to convince y ourself that everything is fine and normal, and will eventually get better, she says that it’s better to “identify what truly matters to you and take one small step every day to move in that direction.”

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