Have you ever avoided situations because of the feelings of nervousness and anxiety that came with them? This is what we call avoidance behaviour.
We can all relate to those uncomfortable thoughts that accompany a new opportunity or even a situation that in the past – we’ve found to be outside of our comfort zone. Whether or not these are conscious or unconscious actions, avoiding opportunities can have a major impact on how we navigate our professional lives.
In our conversation with Amanda, we saw this happening first hand.
“I’m comfortable in my job and what I do, but I get so anxious when it comes to those important opportunities I know have the potential to advance my career. I noticed it becoming a huge problem when I started calling in sick to avoid meetings with my boss or when I turned down opportunities to facilitate calls with our company’s CEO and potential clients. Even speaking up at team meetings with my co-workers has become a fear of mine! I’ve been given chances to prove myself but just can’t get past these feelings of nervousness and anxiety.”
Learning how to manage avoidance behaviour can be a challenge, but it is possible and life-changing!
What is Avoidance Behaviour?
It’s important to understand fully what avoidance behaviour is. According to Anxiety Canada, avoidance behaviour is when you avoid situations that evoke feelings of fear and anxiety and is “one of many survival mechanisms designed to protect us from danger.”
It’s your subconscious telling you to avoid a potentially harmful situation. That’s why we avoid or procrastinate things that make us feel fearful (skydiving), cause us discomfort (dentist) and/or make us feel anxious (public speaking). These feelings are driven by our body’s natural fight or flight response, which kicks into high gear when we feel threatened.
Although we all engage in it at some point or another (like procrastinating that root canal) avoidance behaviour becomes problematic when it starts to negatively impact our personal relationships or career growth, like cancelling a big job interview or declining to present at a workplace meeting.
What Causes Avoidance Behaviour?
You may be wondering, ‘What causes avoidance behaviour?” Anxious thoughts and feelings are the leading cause of avoidance behaviour, meaning the 12% of adults in Canada struggling with an anxiety disorder, like social anxiety, have an increased chance of avoidance behaviours.
However, you don’t have to be struggling with mental health to engage in avoidance behaviours. High-stress situations (like in the workplace) can get anyone feeling anxious and kick-start your flight response.
Those who struggle with avoidance behaviour often report trying to avoid situations that may lead to uncomfortable feelings. These feelings may include the fear of:
- Harsh Criticism
- Being Ridiculed
Avoidance Behaviour & Mental Wellness
Avoidance behaviour can have a major impact on your mental wellness. After avoiding a certain situation or event, you may immediately feel a sense of relief, however, that sense of relief is often quickly replaced with feelings of guilt and…guess what…increased anxiety.
According to Wellness Coach Elizabeth Scott, building your avoidance coping skills doesn’t actually get rid of your anxious thoughts and feelings, it only temporarily delays them.
The reality is, we can’t overcome our workplace stressors or fears (like presenting at the next company-wide meeting) without facing them head-on. While that prospect may seem daunting – trust us we’ve been there – moving at your own pace and practicing the techniques we’ll be sharing with you can help you overcome your fears, one step at a time.
Recognizing Avoidance Behaviour
At this point, you may be wondering if you struggle with avoidance behaviour. Although everyone experiences their emotions differently, here are some common, everyday examples:
- Avoiding going to the dentist
- Delaying RSVPing to that wedding invitation you’re planning to decline
- Procrastinating delivering bad news to your friends
- Avoiding social events that require you to be engaged
- Failing to speak your mind during conversations
- Dropping out of a sports/talent event
You may also find that you experience avoidance behaviour in more aspects of your life than others. It’s common for individuals to use avoidant coping mechanisms in high-stress environments where their fear of rejection or failure is especially heightened. For many, this is often within their professional lives.
Avoidance Behaviour & The Workplace
Whether in the office or working from home, the majority of workplaces today require public speaking skills that are far out of many people’s comfort zones. The hesitancy we feel to share our input at a meeting or the panic attack we get at the thought of saying ‘yes’ to a presenting opportunity – are both examples of how avoidance behaviour can trickle into our professional life.
Avoidance behaviour in the workplace might manifest in the following ways:
- Declining to present at the next team meeting
- Failing to speak up on a conference call
- Avoiding interaction with senior management
- Avoiding asking questions after a client presentation
- Declining the opportunity to participate on a discussion panel
- Failing to assert their opinion when challenged
According to a study done by the University of St.Thomas, “avoiding presentations can create significant barriers to achievement in occupational settings.” The last thing you want is to let your avoidance hinder you from advancement and professional goals.
If any of this sounds familiar, don’t panic, we’ve all been there. The important thing is that now that you’ve recognized it, you’ll be able to work to amend it.
Do you struggle with Public Speaking in the workplace? Join our community of emerging leaders and receive a guide to impromptu speaking and learn how to deliver clear, concise, and structured messages.
4 Strategies for Overcoming Avoidance Behaviour
Registered Psychologist and Anxiety Canada’s Scientific Advisor, Dr. Melanie Bedali, puts it perfectly, “Figure out what is important to you and then go for it. Avoid avoidance. Running away from something truly dangerous is helpful. Running away from something attainable is not helpful. Committed action does not mean easy or comfortable. It means moving toward your goals even when it is hard.”
While reflecting on this quote and the importance of avoiding avoidance can help set you on your path, we know how difficult it can be to follow through with this goal.
Here are four effective methods that can help you learn to manage those pesky feelings of nervousness and get you on track to reaching your full potential.
1. Establish a Growth Mindset
Individuals often worry about how others will perceive them in certain situations, but this fear stems from how we perceive ourselves. A growth mindset is a way of thinking that empowers us to try new things and innovate while also accepting that we’re learning, growing, and may make mistakes.
This type of mindset helps us develop and strengthen our self-confidence and reduce feelings of anxiety that are tied to self-doubt.
2. Realistic Self-Talk
Realistic Self-Talk is taking a moment to ask yourself whether you’re engaging in overly negative thinking patterns. This means reversing your negative self-talk into phrases and affirmations that are compassionate, pragmatic, and solution-oriented.
A good way to recognize negative self-talk is to ask yourself, “would I say this to my best friend.” If the answer is no, it’s time to pack away the thought and exchange it for one that’s more constructive.
3. Develop an Exposure Hierarchy
Exposure Hierarchy is a systematic way to help you confront your fears and stressors. The objective is to gradually expose yourself to feared situations repeatedly in order to become desensitized. Anxiety Canada describes the process as “starting [exposure] with situations that are less scary, and working your way up to facing things that cause you a great deal of anxiety.”
This will help you slowly become confident within those situations and maybe even enjoy them – like riding a bike!
For example, if you’re afraid of public speaking, start by asking a question in a meeting. Then challenge yourself to contribute an idea or opinion. Maybe at the next meeting you lead an agenda item, followed by leading the entire meeting. Before you know it you’ll have worked your way up to finally delivering a presentation.
It’s important to remember to take your time and feel more-or-less comfortable at each stage of the hierarchy before moving to the next challenge.
Challenge: speak up at your next meeting!
Work meetings can be a great opportunity to position yourself as a leader in the organization by showcasing your ideas and way of thinking. But what happens when you have a tendency to shy away from speaking?
Research shows that by not speaking up in meetings you risk not being seen as a leader or being visible in the organization. This can impact promotional opportunities, raises and the overall trajectory of your professional career.
Challenge | So, our challenge to you is to say something (anything) the next time you find yourself in a meeting or call that normally makes you feel nervous/anxious and may cause you to stay silent. Take a minute to write down and plan something you might be able to say.
4. 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
People often underestimate the usefulness of deep breathing and breathing techniques. Taking a moment to ground yourself with breath can majorly reduce your anxious thoughts and feelings. One common and simple method is the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
In summary, to practice this technique all you have to do is:
1. Inhale from your diaphragm for 4 seconds
2. Hold your breath for 7 seconds
3. Exhale (again, using your diaphragm) for 8 seconds
4. Repeat as necessary
Finding Support for Avoidance Behaviour
Remember, the most important thing is everyone moves at their own pace. Nothing happens overnight but the more you practice these techniques the more comfortable you’ll start to become.
However, if you feel like you need added support on your journey it could be beneficial for you to reach out to a professional. Having someone to get you started and keep you accountable will go a long way.
Do you have a tendency to ramble, go “blank”, or lose your train of thought while speaking during an important meeting or presentation? We know how daunting this can be. Sign-up for our free newsletter and receive our tips for impromptu speaking to help you deliver clear, concise, and structured messages.
- “Avoidance.” Anxiety Canada, 5 Mar. 2019, www.anxietycanada.com/articles/avoidance/.
- “Understanding the Stress Response.” Harvard Health, 6 July 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.
- Canada, Public Health Agency of. “Government of Canada.” Canada.ca, / Gouvernement Du Canada, 3 June 2015, www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/diseases-conditions/mood-anxiety-disorders-canada.html.
- Elizabeth Scott, MS. “Why Avoidance Coping Creates Additional Stress.” Verywell Mind, www.verywellmind.com/avoidance-coping-and-stress-4137836.
- Arnold, James K. “Stress to Success: Public Speaking Anxiety and Its Relationship to Perceived Leadership.” University of St.Thomas, 2018.
- Dweck, Carol. “What Having a ‘Growth Mindset’ Actually Means.” Harvard Business Review, 13 Jan. 2016, hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means.
- “Facing Your Fears: Exposure .” Anxiety Canada, www.anxietycanada.com/sites/default/files/FacingFears_Exposure.pdf.