Identifying and confronting maladaptive avoidance behaviors following stressful events (Mervin Smucker 2014)

It is sometimes difficult to identify all the various maladaptive avoidance behaviors that individuals may have developed in response to a stressful, upsetting, or traumatic event. Some persons may have been avoiding places, thoughts, situations and people for so long that they have adapted their lives so as not to cope with what makes them feel upset. While some avoidance behaviors may be relatively easy to identify, others will be more difficult. A person who has been raped in a park may develop avoidance to going to any park. Someone who has been in an airplane crash (or a near plane crash) may avoid flying. However, it is not uncommon to generalize fears and avoidance to cues that remind them of the trauma. For example after a plane accident, not only flying may be avoided but also traveling by bus, train, car or/and boat.

The following is an example of how a therapist or coach may briefly explain the rationale for identifying and confronting maladaptive avoidance behaviors to a potential client:

You have experienced a very stressful event, and it is normal to avoid certain situations, people, places or even thoughts that make you feel more distressed because they remind you of this upsetting event. However, one of the reasons why many of your fears are maintained is because of your maladaptive (irrational) avoidance behaviors, which do not allow you to test your unrealistic/catastrophic assumptions or interpretations that you may hold about yourself, others, or the world. It is important that you begin by identifying your maladaptive avoidance behaviors so that you can in turn challenge and modify them, as a means of overcoming and mastering your irrational fears that are interfering with your life. One way to begin this process of challenging your avoidance behaviors is to first write down your thoughts and feelings in situations which frighten you and which you want to avoid. It can be especially helpful to record your level of distress (discomfort) using a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 indicates no fear at all, and 10 indicates maximal fear. The next step then is to challenge yourself to stay in the situation that frightens you (assuming that objectively the situation itself is relatively safe) for extended periods of time, until your distress level begins to come down while you are still in the feared situation. Using this approach consistently and repeatedly may eventually lead to a significant reduction in your fear and avoidance and thereby improve significantly the quality of your life.

Copyright: Mervin Smucker (2014)