02/04/2013 04:23 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

How Avoidance Will Make You Fearful

Avoidance is probably the most common way people deal with fear, and at first it seems to make intuitive sense. After all, why would you move toward something that is painful or threatening? You wouldn't, for instance, run into traffic no matter how many times you were told, "Oh, just do it, everything will be fine!" You wouldn't light yourself on fire, either. In these situations, your fear would stop you -- for a good reason. It would prevent you from choosing certain death in a life-or-death situation.

The problem, however, is that most fears are not about life or death as illustrated above. I personally don't know anyone who has died from giving a speech, from forcing himself to ask someone on a date, or riding in an elevator.

Such situations don't kill us. The anxiety, especially if it progresses into a panic attack, might cause you to feel that you are dying, but no one ever has died from a panic attack, either. There's a big difference between feeling as if you're going to die and actually dying. Eventually, the panic goes away.

Because fear feels so scary, many people run wildly in the other direction as they tell themselves things like, "I can't speak in front of a crowd," and "I can't dance," and "I can't ask for a raise."

In reality, however, they can. For the vast majority of situations, the fear isn't based in reality. It's all in your head, and it's not as scary as it might initially seem.

Some might argue that they don't have to face these fears, that avoiding them isn't harming them. The problem with this thinking is twofold. For one, it's probably difficult to completely avoid your fear. Sure, if you have a fear of alligators, you will be able to get through most of your life without confronting them. But many other fears are a completely different story. I once worked with a patient who avoided driving over bridges because she was so fearful of them. Although it isn't impossible to function without driving over bridges, the detours can be a gross inconvenience, and in her case, cost her a lot of time and caused much stress in her life. She was usually late to get places or ended up not going places at all. Secondly, the longer you avoid facing your fear, the bigger it grows. By avoiding it, you are telling yourself, "This is scary." The avoidance and self-talk reinforces the fear itself, allowing it to grow stronger and become even more debilitating.

Think about everything you are missing out on because of what you are avoiding. How much richer could your life become if you didn't feel the need to hide from your fears? What would you be able to do? Supposing you were not fearful, think how great your life would be.

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