A recent study carried out by the Mayo Clinic found that avoidance of scary situations in childhood led to anxiety. The study collected data from more than 800 children, aged between 7 and 18 years.
During the study, both children and parents were asked eight different questions relating to avoidance. One of the questions the parents were asked was: “When your child is scared or worried about something, does he or she ask to do it later?” and the children were asked to describe their passive avoidance habits, for example: “When I feel scared or worried about something, I try not to go near it.”
One of the findings from this study showed that by measuring the avoidance behaviour of the children, they could then predict the child’s development of anxiety. So the children who hadn’t developed avoidance habits to do with scary situations showed a stable level of anxiety after a year, but the children who had shown avoidance habits had an increased level of anxiety after a year.
“This new approach may enable us to identify kids who are at risk for an anxiety disorder,” says lead author Stephen Whiteside, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center. “And further, because cognitive behaviour therapy focuses on decreasing avoidance behaviours, our approach may also provide a means to evaluate whether current treatment strategies work the way we think they do.”
“In 25 anxious children surveyed following cognitive behaviour therapy that slowly exposed children to the situations that caused fear, the avoidance scores from surveys of their parents declined by half. This likely indicates that part of the reason they’re getting better is that they’re no longer avoiding things”, Dr. Whiteside says.
“Even after controlling for their baseline anxiety, those who avoided had more anxiety than kids who didn’t avoid,” Dr. Whiteside says. “That was consistent with the model of how anxiety disorders develop. Kids who avoid fearful situations don’t have the opportunity to face their fears and don’t learn that their fears are manageable.”
From a Thrive Consultant’s point of view, we know this to be true with many people that consult with a fear or phobia. The “Black and White, all-or-nothing, or dichotomous ” thinking style is involved, leading to an avoidance of the object/situation that the person fears. For example, a person with a fear of flying will normally go to great lengths to avoid travelling on a plane, a person with a fear of spiders will vacate the room at just a suggestion that there is a spider there. It is this inability to tolerate any uncomfortable feelings that lead to the person renewing their fear on a daily basis.
This case study is taken from the Thrive Workbook that we work through with trainees, written by Rob Kelly:
“Gordon was a recent client of mine in Cambridge. Gordon is a VERY fit (he’s a runner, mountain climber and skier) man in his thirties who had three big phobias (his words) on entering adulthood: a fear of flying, a fear of water and a fear of doctors. On first meeting him I asked: ‘How can I help?’ He stated that he had got over two of his fears – he just needed help to get over his fear of doctors. I asked him what happened to his other fears. He replied, ‘Well, three years ago I got married to a French girl and once a month she flies back home to Bordeaux to see her parents. If I wanted to see her that weekend I had to go with her, so I went with her, had some difficult flights but gradually got over my fear.’ I asked about his fear of water and he replied, ‘Well, I had always wanted to go surfing, so last summer I took a month off work and stayed in Newquay (Cornwall) for a week… I went in the water three times a day and by the end of the week my fear of water had gone!’ ‘OK’, I said, ‘so when’s the last time you went to see a doctor?’ He replied, ‘I’ve not been to see a doctor since I was a baby.’
For more than twenty five years he had avoided doctors and hospitals and, every time he avoided one, he had made his fear bigger and bigger. Because he had never TOLERATED his fear and EXPOSED himself to going and seeing a doctor, he had never challenged his black and white thinking. After working through this book with me, Gordon visited his doctor easily within a couple of weeks.”
What this research and extract above shows us is that it is not helpful from an anxiety level point of view to avoid scary situations if you want to overcome your fear of them! You can learn to manage your thinking surrounding your fear and learn to feel in control of your emotional reaction.
For help in overcoming anxiety and any fears or phobias, get in touch with one of your local Thrive Consultants (some offer Skype sessions if you are not local!) here: Thrive Consultants and arrange for your free consultation.
Thrive Consultant and Blogger