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What Are Avoidance Behaviors?

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Updated December 06, 2013

Avoidance behaviors, in the context of social anxiety disorder (SAD), are things that people do, or don't do, to reduce anxiety about being in social situations. Avoidance behaviors can take three different forms.

Avoidance

True avoidance behaviors involve the complete avoidance of the feared social situation. For example, someone afraid of public speaking might drop a class in which he has to give a speech, change jobs to avoid giving presentations, or fail to show up for an event such as a weddding or awards ceremony in which he is expected to speak in front of others.

Escape

When total avoidance is impossible, escape behaviors may be used as a means of dealing with feared situations. Escape involves leaving or escaping from a feared social or performance situation. Some examples of escape include leaving a gathering early, walking out in the middle of a speech, or hiding in the restroom during a dinner party.

Partial Avoidance

When neither avoidance nor escape are possible, partial avoidance (also known as safety behaviors) may be used to alleviate feelings of anxiety during social or performance situations. Safety behaviors generally limit or control your experience of a situation. Safety behaviors might include such things as avoiding eye contact, crossing your arms to hide shaking, drinking or doing drugs, daydreaming, or sitting in the back of a classroom.

Avoidance Maintains Anxiety

The problem with avoidance behaviors is that they maintain the symptoms of anxiety. If you always avoid giving speeches, or if you only give speeches without making eye contact, your anxiety about giving a speech will never diminish.

Instead of avoiding giving speeches, or only delivering them in a "safe" way, you need lots of exposure to giving speeches without avoiding, escaping, or using safety behaviors. An effective treatment for SAD, one of the goals of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is to identify avoidance behaviors and provide exposure to feared situations.

Sources:

Antony, MM, Stein, MB. Oxford handbook of anxiety and related disorders. New York: Oxford University Press; 2008.

Hoffman, SG, Otto, MW. Cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2008.

Markway, BG, Markway, GP. Painfully Shy. New York: St. Martin's Press; 2003.

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