Hoping to change how you cope with anxiety? In this post, I’ll walk you through the differences between anxiety and fear (and why that difference matters), help you understand the anxiety-avoidance cycle, and teach you a strategy for recognizing and changing your own anxiety-driven patterns.
How to Cope with Anxiety: Understand Key Differences Between Anxiety and Fear
Let’s start by understanding fear. Fear is an alarm system. When it’s functioning the way it was meant to, fear alerts us to danger in our current environment.
When danger is detected, the alarm system goes off and triggers a response in our minds and bodies. This response includes cognitive changes, physical responses, and urges to do certain behaviors.
You can think about the fear alarm in your body almost like a fire alarm that goes off in a big building. Once the fire alarm starts sounding, it’s really hard to shut it off. The alarm also causes other things to happen in response to the fire. Just as a fire alarm alerts the fire department so that they can come and fight the fire, the fear alarm in our bodies alerts us to the potential threat, directing our attention so that we notice it and can address it if needed (these are cognitive changes). The fire alarm also causes the doors in all the hallways to close in order to keep people safe from smoke. In a similar way, the way the fear alarm in our bodies coordinates a physical response that prepares us to deal with the threat by causing behavioral urges like running, fighting, freezing, or hiding. That physical response is the flight or flight response you may be familiar with already.
When there is a clear and present danger, fear is the right response at the right time. For example, if you’re hiking and you turn a corner and see a bear, fear is the response you hope kicks in. Fear kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce. People in ancient times who had a fear response system that was not very sensitive to threats probably didn’t last very long. In that way, we have evolved to have very sensitive threat detection systems and fear responses.
To improve how you cope with anxiety, it’s important to understand it. Anxiety is related to fear but it’s different. Anxiety happens when we think we might feel fear in the future. We feel anxious when we consider the potential for future threat. When we feel anxiety, there is no clear and present danger, but there could be. When we think about the possibility of a threat, we can activate the fight or flight response system; in other words, we can trigger the fear alarm with our thoughts.
Just like fear, anxiety also serves a purpose. Mild or moderate levels of anxiety are perfectly adaptable and healthy. If you experience mild anxiety at the thought of letting your driver’s license expire, that feeling will probably motivate you to renew it on time. If you have an important exam coming up, a moderate level of anxiety might encourage you to study. Being alerted to future potential threats can be helpful. It motivates us to take action and be prepared.
When our anxiety level rises higher and becomes more intense, it can trigger that fear alarm when we don’t need it. Remember, fear is meant to help us cope with a real, clear, and present danger. When we experience fear in response to an imaginary scenario, it’s not very helpful. We don’t need the fight or flight response to fight the idea of a bear, only a real bear. Because of this, when our anxiety becomes a common, intense response to imaginary future threats, it is no longer helpful.
A New Perspective on Fear and Anxiety Responses
I hope that reading this helps you change the way you see your fear and anxiety responses. Although they might feel uncomfortable, fear and anxiety are not “bad.” They are actually meant to alert you to things that could be important. Your anxiety and fear are trying to take care of you. So, the next time you feel anxious or afraid, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, thank your body for trying to help you and treat yourself with compassion. This perspective will make it easier to cope with anxiety.
Cope with Anxiety: Understanding the Anxiety-Avoidance Cycle
Now that you understand fear and anxiety a little more, let’s move on to how anxiety is related to avoidance. Avoidance is the primary behavior urge that comes with fear and anxiety. It’s the “flight” part of fight or flight.
This behavior makes sense in the clear and present danger scenarios discussed above, like encountering a bear during a hike. However, when we act on this behavioral urge to avoid in response to an imaginary threat, this behavior makes less sense.
How can you tell if avoidance is helpful or not helpful to cope with anxiety?
- Avoidance might be helpful if the urge to avoid is in response to something in your immediate environment (again, not something you’re imagining might happen.) For example, an urge to avoid stepping on something that looks like a snake is probably adaptive (have you ever seen a garden hose out of the corner of your eye?). However, avoiding a social situation because you feel anxious that you might embarrass yourself is probably not helpful.
- Avoidance is probably not helpful if it is in response to fear that doesn’t fit the facts of the situation. For example, imagine you’re in a public place and your anxiety says that the door handles could be contaminated with dangerous germs and you should avoid touching the door. Unless the door handle looks visibly dirty, it probably doesn’t fit the available evidence to avoid touching the door handle.
- Another sign your avoidance may be unhelpful is if you’ve been avoiding a lot lately. In general, when we overuse a strategy, it suggests we may be responding in a rigid way. Having many different options for responding to different kinds of situations is more adaptive than having only one tool in your toolbox.
Identifying Anxiety-Driven Avoidance Behaviors
How can you tell whether what you are doing is an avoidance behavior? I’ll list below some of the most common avoidance behaviors we see, but recognizing an avoidance behavior isn’t about identifying a specific action. It’s about understanding the function of the behavior. In other words, if the goal of the action is to prevent a feeling of anxiety, to minimize a feeling of anxiety, or to escape a feeling of anxiety, it’s likely an avoidance behavior.
Avoidance can look like:
- Canceling plans
- Changing driving routes so you don’t have to use certain roads
- Not speaking up
- Declining invitations to do something
- Distracting yourself
- Not making eye contact
- Not touching something directly
- Trying to figure something out without ever coming to a solution
- Mentally reviewing a situation
- Productive procrastination
- Spending too much time on social media
Again, this is not a complete list, just something to get you started in identifying your own avoidance.
CBT Strategies to Cope with Anxiety and Avoidance Behaviors
Now that you have a sense of what your avoidance behaviors are, it’s time to look at how these actions are impacting you. In order to do this, you’ll need to take two steps.
- Identify the short-term consequences (usually benefits) of your avoidance.
- Look for the long term consequences (usually negative) of your avoidance.
As humans, we are highly influenced by short-term consequences. We respond to immediate rewards and punishments. That’s why we eat too many cookies and spend too much money. It feels good in the short term, while the long-term benefits of choosing different behaviors feel distant.
Let’s look at some examples.
Avoiding That Research Paper
You have a ten-page research report due in two days for your history class. Every time you sit down to start writing, your mind races with anxious thoughts: I don’t even know where to begin. This is going to take me forever. What if I can’t find enough sources? Before you know it, you’ve opened up Netflix instead of your laptop, hoping an episode of The Great British Baking Show will make you feel better. Meanwhile, your paper isn’t being written and your anxiety grows in the background.
Do you see how avoidance provides temporary relief but actually perpetuates anxiety in the long run?
Avoiding writing the paper might mean you turn in work that doesn’t fully demonstrate your abilities because you rushed it at the last minute. You could end up performing poorly as a result, which then reinforces those anxious thoughts that the work is too hard or overwhelming. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where you believe you’re not capable of doing well on these assignments. Then, the next time a report rolls around, your anxiety grows even more intense, and you become convinced that you’ll fail again. Even though avoidance gave you some short-term relief, it feeds into a vicious cycle of heightened anxiety and subpar performance over time.
Avoiding Social Interaction
It’s Friday night and your friend invited you to her birthday dinner at a crowded restaurant downtown. Looking around the table, you don’t know anyone else except your friend. Your palms start to sweat as anxious thoughts flood your mind: I won’t have anything to talk about with these people. They’ll think I’m so awkward. You pull out your phone and start mindlessly scrolling Instagram, avoiding having to make small talk.
This might help you get through the dinner, but what happens over time?
Other people might see you on your phone and think you’re not interested in talking, so they don’t start a conversation. This might lead to further “evidence” that you don’t have anything to talk about. You haven’t given yourself a chance to update the story about yourself that says you’re awkward and can’t talk with other people.
Try These CBT Skills at Home to Cope with Anxiety
Now it’s time to put this concept into action to increase your ability to cope with anxiety. This week, I challenge you to notice when anxiety rears its head. When you feel nervous or uncomfortable, take a moment to identify what avoidance strategies come up. Make a daily log of these behaviors and note how they provide short-term relief but actually maintain your anxiety in the long run. Identifying your own unhelpful patterns is the first step in making big changes.
If you’d like to learn more about the role of avoidance in maintaining anxiety, this worksheet is really helpful.
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