Avoiding Avoidance: Questioning Our Most Basic Strategy When Faced With Fears

Article by Jamie Rhiannon Fehribach, Psychologist

Understanding Avoidance

Avoidance is something that we can all relate to: I’m sure we have all been faced with a moment where we chose to leave, rather than push through. What you may not have thought about before is the fact that everyone avoids things sometimes. This is because it is our most natural defense mechanism when facing challenges.

Before we get more into that, let’s talk about what I mean when I say ‘avoidance.’  Avoidance is when our brain and body tell us ‘Hey, there’s danger here!’ and encourage us to leave the situation. Our brain might say things like – ‘This is going to hurt!’ – and our body might also react to danger by creating physical sensations, like tightening of our throats and pains in our chest. These alarm bells are strong and uncomfortable so that we are unable to ignore them and, therefore, we are forced to react and avoid whatever is setting them off.

Like I mentioned before, avoidance is our natural defense response that developed primarily for situations that could actually be harmful – if food smells off, we have learned that we should avoid eating it or we could get sick. If a tiger is prowling around us, we have learned we should walk away to avoid becoming its lunch! We rely on avoidance because we are programmed to use it – it’s one of our best tools! However, it certainly can be sneaky. 

Unfortunately, avoidance likes to appear even in contexts where not avoiding the situation would not result in harm. For example, if you’re nervous about going to school because of a big exam, maybe you decide you’d rather stay home. Your brain might say, ‘We could fail! It’s too hard!’ and your body might begin to tense up, or you feel nauseous and your stomach hurts. These alarm bells are telling you that you should not go to school because there is danger there, so you don’t – a logical conclusion when it comes to listening to our warning systems.

However, avoiding situations when there is no real danger results in longer term harm. When you avoid going to school because of a scary exam, the next time you are faced with another academic dilemma, you are going to feel even more anxious than the first time. Why? Because, last time the bells went off, you listened to them and treated the situation as harmful. Now that you see a similar situation, your brain and body remembers, ‘Oh, last time we learned this was bad; we must definitely avoid it this time, too!’ Therefore, the alarm bells will be even stronger – more worrying thoughts and more physical sensations of panic. 

This is how things like anxiety disorders grow – they create feedback loops within each other where each time you avoid, you reinforce the need to avoid again.


Avoidance in Expat Kids 

Expat kids can be tempted to avoid all sorts of things that are parts of being a TCK: making new friends, acknowledging the loss of their former home countries, grieving friends they left behind after the move. Avoidance, again, is our go-to strategy: let’s not think about it, and then we won’t have to feel bad. Avoidance can show up in clear ways, like refusing to go to certain places or speak to certain people, but it’s also very sneaky! Your expat kid may still go to school despite feeling very uncomfortable in their foreign classroom, but they are still avoiding! Maybe they are spending the whole time doodling, instead of paying attention in class. Or perhaps they  are taking bathroom trips during free times instead of socializing. Even when you are present in the situation, your brain and body will look for ways to avoid what’s happening to make yourself feel temporarily more comfortable in the moment (but, again, long term this strategy will make you far more uncomfortable!).


Healthier Approaches and Avoiding Avoidance 

Avoidance can be helpful, but it’s important for us to learn when avoidance is appropriate, and when another strategy would be more effective. One such strategy could be mindfulness. Mindfulness practices are great for not avoiding because they involve sitting with feelings and bringing attention to them. This can be done with anything – not just breath practice. For example, you can encourage your expat child to bring attention to a favorite activity – such as drawing or listening to music. It doesn’t matter what the ‘now’ is, only that we’re paying attention to it.

It’s important to note, though, that mindfulness isn’t always the right answer. A situation can be too overwhelming to sit in. What’s important is you’re always working at your challenge level – if it’s too much to talk to a new friend in the cafeteria, challenge yourself to make eye contact and smile instead. We aren’t avoiding the overall problem, but we aren’t pushing ourselves to do the hardest task, either. Taking an incremental approach can help ease us into facing the things we avoided previously.

When we approach challenges, we are relearning what we have accidentally taught ourselves to be  dangerous or scary. Although we will feel uncomfortable in the moment, we will benefit over time and see less panicking and anxious thoughts.


Is your expat kid struggling with stress and coping mechanisms? Check out our services or make an appointment to learn how we can help.

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