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How to Break the Cycle of Avoidance and Anxious Feelings

By Kerry Weiss
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
May 13, 2024

Have you ever found yourself dealing with a stressful task by simply putting it off? It could be anything from a work project to a dreaded phone call. When you put off a task that you find unpleasant or distressing, that’s a type of behavior known as avoidance.

“For a lot of people, this might look like procrastination,” says Alice Connors-Kellgren, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Tufts Medical Center, in Boston. At first, procrastination or another form of avoidance often feels good. “People tend to use avoidance to reduce feelings of anxiety,” Connors-Kellgren says.

However, the desired effect is short-lived, and it may actually increase anxious feelings. Here’s how—and what you can do instead to stop avoiding important tasks.

How Avoidance May Increase Feelings of Stress and Anxiety

Connors-Kellgren points to a sort of confirmation bias to explain why avoidance may reinforce feelings of anxiety. “One of the reasons this happens is that if you never do the thing or go to the place or confront the situation that you’re anxious about, you don’t have the opportunity to collect alternative evidence,” Connors-Kellgren says. “A daunting task you’re avoiding might actually be very doable and could lead to a sense of accomplishment and relief, but you never have the opportunity to experience those feelings if you keep avoiding it.”

Avoidance may also set you up for more stress later, says Supatra Tovar, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in Pasadena, California. “Most activities that cause anxiety in an individual and lead to procrastination possess a time-sensitive element—meaning that the more one delays the inevitable, the less time one is left with completing the task,” she says. “Procrastinating, while temporarily relieving the anxiety, simply leaves us in a more anxious situation when we finally do engage the task.”

The good news is that taking steps to break this avoidance-anxiety growth cycle can help you prevent any avoidance tactics from taking over in the future—all while helping to reduce anxious thoughts and feelings.

How to Make Avoidance a Thing of the Past

Start with these steps to leave avoidance behind and start feeling less stressed.

1. Weigh the Pros and Cons of Avoidance

Many of the tasks that people tend to avoid can come with consequences. “If you’re avoiding going to the doctor because you’re scared, it could have a negative impact on your health,” says Connors-Kellgren. “Or if you’re avoiding a task for work, that could have a negative impact on your work performance.”

Weighing the pros (like getting the healthcare you need) against the potential cons (like a problem getting worse because it’s left untreated) of a task can help you understand how your avoidance may make things worse in the long term. In turn, this information can give you the motivation you need to tackle a task head-on.

2. Relax First

Try using relaxation strategies before confronting whatever your stressor is, suggests Connors-Kellgren. “It helps take the edge off of the anxiety,” she notes. Using relaxation techniques not only helps reduce physical tension that comes with anxious thoughts and feelings but also allows us more mental space to complete our tasks at hand, Tovar adds.

To help you relax, try techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness meditation.

3. Pair Tasks Smartly

It’s natural to want to avoid things you may find unpleasant, whether that’s paying monthly bills or preparing for a presentation in front of your boss. Making the experience more pleasant may therefore help you overcome the desire to avoid it.

“Try making a task you’re avoiding more enjoyable by pairing it with something you really love doing,” recommends Connors-Kellgren. If the thought of preparing your work presentation fills you with dread, for example, try having a warm and soothing cup of tea while you do it. If bills are what’s driving your avoidance, try listening to music you love while you work on them to make it more tolerable.

4. Divide and Conquer

For larger, more daunting tasks, Tovar recommends using a concept known as chunking, which involves dividing larger tasks into smaller, more achievable ones.

“Originally, chunking was conceived as a memory retention tool,” she notes. “The concept has also been adapted to be used with time management. … Doing this makes each smaller chunk easier to accomplish than if you were to try to complete the entire task at once.” Accomplishing these smaller tasks may make the larger task feel less daunting, and starting the larger task may feel less intimidating when broken into parts.

4. Set a Timer

Another time management strategy called the Pomodoro technique may also help you feel less anxious about completing a task, Tovar says. This technique involves setting up timed intervals to help you check these tasks off your to-do list. Here’s how it works:

  • Choose a task you want to accomplish.
  • Set a timer to 25 minutes.
  • Focus on the task until the timer lets you know time is up.
  • Break for five minutes.
  • For every four intervals of the previous steps that you complete, treat yourself to a longer break of up to 30 minutes.

“This helps break up the time spent on a daunting task into manageable sections, and provides positive reinforcement in the rewarding break,” Tovar says.

5. Treat Yourself

You can incentivize yourself with more than just a break. “Try setting up a reward for yourself once you’ve completed whatever it is that you’re avoiding,” notes Connors-Kellgren. This can be as simple as watching your favorite TV show or reading a book you love.

This concept is based on Premack’s principle, or the idea of using a reward after completing an undesirable task as motivation to get it done.

“If you promise yourself something rewarding in exchange for accomplishing the anxiety-provoking behavior, you’re more likely to complete it and have something nice waiting for you when you do,” Tovar says.

6. Evaluate How It Went and Strategize for the Future

Once you do the thing that you've been avoiding, take some time to notice and attend to the feelings that you have around it, says Connors-Kellgren. “Are you feeling relieved? Was it as horrible or scary as you thought it was going to be? Do you have a sense of accomplishment?”

Understanding your feelings after you’ve accomplished something you’ve been avoiding can help you reframe how you’ll approach similar tasks in the future. “When you have the desire to avoid something [later on], think about a time that you did something rather than avoiding it, and what that was like,” Connors-Kellgren says. “See if you can connect to those feelings of accomplishment, or relief, or of 'Hey, that wasn't so bad.’ ”

Eventually, this practice can help you prevent avoidance behaviors from affecting you. “Anxiety is usually conceived as a perception of a fearful and difficult future. Changing our thoughts of the future into more hopeful or exciting ones can be helpful in reducing our anxiety,” Tovar says. Once you tackle the anxious thoughts and feelings themselves and realize that they are quite manageable, you’ll be less likely to avoid these tasks in the future.

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