Anxious-looking woman

6 Strategies to Stop Avoiding What's Making You Anxious

By Lynya Floyd
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
October 06, 2023
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Two years ago, Carrie Montgomery, personal branding and somatic styling coach, tripped and badly injured her knee while visiting family in Maine. An expensive surgery and a pair of crutches followed as she tried to decide if she should return to the home she had made for herself in Spain.

Every day she woke up wondering if she should book a flight and went to bed without making a decision. “The clock was ticking on my Spanish visa and ticket prices were surging every day,” Montgomery says. “But I didn’t feel comfortable traveling an ocean away when it was so hard to walk and I was still healing.” For Montgomery, the delay in rebooking her flight lasted until she actually couldn’t leave town.

Causes and Costs of Avoidance

Fear is one of the biggest reasons we put off for tomorrow what we might be capable of doing in less than a minute today, notes Christine Li, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and procrastination coach in New York. “Many people worry about the negative outcomes they might face, including rejection, criticism, low performance, frustration, and uncertainty,” she says.

Worrying about whether the other moms will hate you if you turn down carpool duty next season or if a work project you’ve been asked to take on will end in a disaster can cause waffling over whether you should agree or not.

Avoidance can also be tied to a mental health concern. “Procrastination can be both a neurocognitive symptom and a psychiatric symptom,” reveals Ashwini Nadkarni, M.D., associate vice chair of wellness in psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “It can reflect a lack of motivation when someone has depression or a lack of focus when someone has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Regardless of the reason, procrastination comes with penalties. “One of the most confounding drawbacks of procrastinating is that it often becomes a bigger problem than the original stressor,” says Li.

Research suggests that procrastination may also be associated with health concerns ranging from depression and anxiety to physical pain and substance abuse. But it doesn’t have to.

Help with Avoiding Avoidance

Save your health (and just free yourself from stress) with this expert advice on how to stop avoiding tasks and start taking action.

Value Your Time More

Research suggests that if you’re going to ask someone for help and give them a deadline, you’ll get more responses with a short deadline as opposed to a long one. Give yourself a week (not a month) to get your taxes done to help you think of time as a limited resource.

Stop Thinking Big

“Break tasks down into parts,” says Nadkarni. “If you're planning a party, break it down into coordinating the music, the date, the venue, and the catering. Then set a deadline for each component.” Even infinitely small progress is better than none at all.

Outsource Accountability

“Work in teams and rely on your team to hold you accountable,” says Nadkarni. If you want to ask someone out on a date, repaint your bedroom, or talk to your boss about a raise, you can enlist a friend or family member to hold you to task for the date you said you’d get it done.

Envision Your Impact

“When we have a sense of gratitude and understand that time can be short, it becomes clear that we're best served not by over-focusing on ourselves, but on figuring out how we can best use our talents to help each other,” says Li. Concentrating on how booking a mammogram or colonoscopy could make sure you’re healthy and there for your family might motivate you to take faster action than just booking the exam because you’re supposed to.

Gain Some Perspective

“Remember that everything is transient,” says Li. “You can worry all you want, but it's likely that you won't be concerned about what you're thinking about in the very near future.” Let that thought remind you that action is the antidote to fear so you can just get started.

When to Seek Help

If your avoidance is tied to other mental health or neurocognitive issues, or it feels like none of the tips in this article are working for you, a mental health professional can help you deal with your feelings.

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