Life isn’t always a bed of roses. There is enough unpleasantness in the world and in ourselves to lull us into the false impression that all is right with the world. When you encounter that unpleasantness, it can stir up some strong emotions that can themselves be overwhelming. It matters whether you’re willing and able to face those tough situations and the emotions they bring up, or if you engage in avoidance behaviors.

What are avoidance behaviors?

God created us and placed us in paradise (Genesis 1-2). Our original state says something about what God’s intentions were for us; to bless us and have us embrace and cultivate what’s good. We are wired to gravitate toward what we consider pleasurable while avoiding pain, and there are times when this is a good thing, but there are other times when that avoidance works against us, as explored by many Christian Counselors.

Avoidance behaviors are the different ways we can seek to avert or minimize dangers, threats, or even difficult feelings about the situations we find ourselves in. Avoidance can be helpful as it functions to steer us safely through a variety of potential threats to our person and well-being.

However, avoidance of certain things that you may perceive as threatening may actually be hindering your growth as a person. As such, some forms of avoidance may be healthy, while others are unhelpful and detrimental to your growth and well-being.

There are a few different types of avoidance behaviors, and these include the following:

Protective avoidance.

This includes taking certain actions to make you feel safer, such as cleaning or having lucky charms.

Cognitive avoidance.

This is when you turn away from dwelling on distressing thoughts or memories. This can be a conscious or a reflexive response.

Situational avoidance.

This is when you steer clear of places, people, activities, or things that trigger you or make you uncomfortable, like a crowded bar, a firework display, dogs and other animals, or meeting and interacting with new people.

Similar to this is Somatic avoidance, which is about avoiding situations, people, or things that might trigger your physical stress response. This includes your heart racing, having an upset stomach, or tingling sensations in the extremities.

Substitution avoidance.

This is when you take some emotions or thoughts that are uncomfortable and replace them with others that are more palatable. You might be feeling sad or afraid and choose instead to lean into anger.

Substitution avoidance is also what happens when a person relies on food, sex, drugs, porn, video games, or excessive exercise to cover up painful or difficult emotions and thoughts they’d rather not deal with.

Signs of avoidance behavior.

We all have things we find uncomfortable and would rather not do or be a part of. Such avoidance isn’t necessarily bad.

However, you can usually tell if you’re engaged in avoidance behaviors that are problematic when they begin to prevent you from functioning effectively in daily life, or when they deprive you of moments, activities, and experiences that are enriching and that would otherwise promote your well-being. At that point, those avoidance behaviors are working against you.

Some of the ways you can tell if you’re engaged in avoidance behaviors that may be detrimental to your well-being include the following:

  • You turn to food, to bingeing shows on Netflix, or to addictive substances when you encounter certain situations that make you uncomfortable. Your escapes might end up taking precedence over your relationships or health.
  • You steer clear of certain places or situations
  • You need the presence of another person or (addictive) substances to feel comfortable in certain situations.
  • You bury your emotions and choose to not think about certain things or pretend they don’t exist.
  • You use distractions to not feel the discomfort of particular situations. This might include going to a party and then staying on your phone or petting the dog to avoid talking with people.
  • You miss out on things you want to be part of because of the discomfort that surrounds aspects of it.

Avoidance behaviors point to something else happening.

Avoiding certain things may mean that you’re putting life on hold, and you’re not getting the most out of the time, space, and resources the Lord has put at your disposal. Avoidance behaviors may point to something else going on, such as an anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or chronic stress. While avoidance seems like a good idea, it can harm you and your long-term mental and emotional health.

One way that avoidance affects you negatively is by putting you in a vicious cycle in which the thing you’re avoiding looms ever larger, and the stress and negative feelings surrounding it only increase and make it that much harder to step into that situation or explore those feelings and thoughts.

Next Steps

Instead of avoiding, taking steps to build your tolerance and emotional resilience can be a huge help. Learning how to engage your feelings and to grow from painful experiences is a skill that you can acquire over time or with help.

If your anxiety prevents you from enjoying your life, you can seek the help of a San Diego Christian Counselor who can help you work through your emotions and experiences, providing you with the right tools to cope effectively with hardship.

“Man Walking”, Courtesy of Lukas Rychvalsky,, CC0 License; “Walking on the Tracks”, Courtesy of Johannes Plenio,, CC0 License; “Solitude”, Courtesy of Humphrey Muleba,, CC0 License