Most people are not excited about confronting difficult situations, such as telling their partner they’ve spent too much money. Of course, the sooner they face up to it, the better. For some people, this is particularly difficult. They are ceased by fear and develop avoidance behavior, which contributes further to putting off the unpleasant task. Such avoidance behavior includes distraction, escape behavior, procrastination, and safety behavior.
Types of Avoidance Behavior
1. Distraction involves busying yourself and your mind with activities or thoughts to avoid confronting a problem — making phone calls, eating, shopping, and facebooking — basically twittering away your time.
2. Escape behavior consists of contriving a way to physically avoid an anxiety-provoking situation, such as faking an illness.
3. Procrastination means postponing action in an attempt to avoid the stress involved with taking that action — “I’ll do it tomorrow.” “I’ll do it after the holidays.”
4. Safety behavior includes self-soothing actions such as fidgeting, biting your nails, twirling your hair, or engaging in other repetitive nervous habits (or behaviors.) While safety behavior allows a person to stay physically present rather than escaping, the behavior often turns into a nervous habit preventing adequate focus to confront the situation.
Avoidance Intensifies Anxiety
Avoidance behavior can usually be traced back to a child’s adaptive response to avoid anxiety caused by his or her environment. Such responses may eventually become automatic responses, which are often self-defeating and worsen the dreaded situation.
Specifically, if you don’t talk about what’s going on with your finances, the situation will get worse the longer you wait. This will make having the conversation even more difficult.
Paradoxically, when you avoid what you fear, your fear grows. If you’re afraid of your partner’s reactions, you intensify your own fear by avoiding facing it. If you avoid difficult conversations because you’re afraid of someone’s reaction, your fear will become worse than the potential reaction.
Avoidance behavior may seem to reduce your fear, but it actually causes you to intensify your avoidance behavior, compounding the problem. Any kind of avoidance behavior activates the amygdala, which intensifies your anxiety, and causes you to focus on that dreaded conversation even more. This in turn gets you into a cycle of obsessive worry. Worry and the associated anticipation of danger cause you to experience fear about experiencing fear, compounding anxiety with unnecessary anxiety.
Changing Avoidance Behavior
In order to truly diminish anxiety over the long-term, you need to get acclimated to that which is causing you anxiety. You have to start by having that conversation immediately. You’ll feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, and you’ll have much less agitation and worry.
With repeated “exposure” to what you’re afraid of — having those difficult conversations as soon as they come up — you curb those ineffective avoidance habits, which compound your anxiety. Repeatedly handling dreaded situations promptly will cause the amygdala to dissociate the dreaded situation from fear. Dread will transform into calm and responsible self-determination.
When approaching a difficult conversation, rehearse what you will say without exuding aggressiveness or meekness. It’s best to use a neutral tone of voice, to briefly express your feelings and desires, and to stick to the facts.
“I’ve been afraid to talk to you because I’m embarrassed about some mistakes I’ve made. I spent too much money last month, and now don’t have enough to pay for the mortgage. I hope you can help me figure this out.”
“I wish we didn’t have to curtail our spending. I would love it if we could have these things. But I’ve been losing sleep worrying about cutting things too close. Unfortunately, during these tough times, we need to save as much as possible.”
Figure out what you need to do and focus single-mindedly on moving forward without distraction and without delay. Repeatedly handling these necessary anxiety-provoking situations will tame your amygdala, with the result that your anxiety over difficult discussions should diminish with each experience.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
Reference: Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life by John B. Arden