Psych Central

avoiding womanA couple of days ago, we wrote about exposure. The opposite of exposure is avoidance. We touch on the topic of avoidance fairly often in this blog, but it’s been years since we focused on the topic exclusively.

That’s too long because avoidance is arguably the most important thing for you to understand in order to successfully battle anxiety and OCD, or for that matter, most types of emotional disorders. Humans have an understandable desire to avoid feeling distress, anxiety, sadness, and upsets of all kinds. If you’re like most people, when you experience these feelings, you’ll do almost anything to get rid of them. Common strategies include:

  • Abusing substances like drugs or alcohol
  • Distraction
  • Smoking
  • Staying in the house
  • Making great efforts to avoid the triggers for your upsets


Avoidance is based on an assumption that it’s actually possible to eliminate painful emotions. Unfortunately, that’s simply not possible. Never has been; never will be. In fact, the more you believe in avoidance, the worse things will get for you.

Every single time you try to dodge negative feelings, you’re likely to feel better ever so briefly. However, that brief repose actually ends up powerfully reinforcing (or rewarding) you for avoiding. And ironically, you’ll find that the breadth and range of events that trigger anxious feelings merely increases over time.

The alternative to avoidance involves fully accepting that you will have difficult feelings from time to time throughout your lifetime. There is no escape. But if you can accept this basic fact, you’ll be more willing to engage with your fears; in other words, face them head on, one step at a time. As you do, they ever so slowly dissolve and lessen their impact on you. You’ll encounter fewer triggers for your distress and handle the triggers better when they pop up.

Engagement also has the benefit of preventing you from indulging in what we like to call “double dipping,” but not the kind of double dipping you benefit from (like taking from two or three pension plans at the same time). With emotional “double dipping,” you feel distressed that you are feeling distressed or sad that you feel sad, stressed out that you are stressed out, or worried that you feel anxious. You can see that double dipping makes you feel worse. And avoidance just keeps the whole process going. If you can engage with and accept problematic emotions, you won’t double dip.

Woman pushing away photo available from Shutterstock.



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    Last reviewed: 22 Feb 2012

APA Reference
Elliott, C. (2012). Engagement vs. Avoidance. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 17, 2014, from


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Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. and Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. are authors of many books, including Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies and Child Psychology & Development for Dummies.

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