Borkovec's Cognitive Avoidance Theory

Sometimes avoidance works as it saves suffering as we postpone uncomfortable experiences. However, in the long run, the weight of anxiety increases, and with it, our feelings of discomfort. Is there a mechanism that can free us from this form of self-deception?
Borkovec's Cognitive Avoidance Theory
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 01 January, 2024

Sometimes, you might choose to stay at home and not go to a party because you feel anxious about exposing yourself socially. Or, you postpone tasks, projects, and obligations because you’re afraid of failing or your self-demand blocks you. Or, when you’ve had a bad day, you spend endless hours on your cell phone scrolling and looking at memes, etc.

As a human being, you’re programmed to avoid suffering and seek pleasure and security. However, in your attempt to avoid uncomfortable situations, you actually crystallize your feelings of discomfort. Borkovec’s theory of cognitive avoidance claims that these types of mental resolutions reinforce your perception of fear.

While it’s true that avoidance provides temporary relief, you need to consider the cost that this behavior has on your life. For example, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is based on the psychological approach that, instead of addressing certain realities, the sufferer chooses to imagine catastrophic events and thus justify the need to escape.

What can you do if you find yourself in this kind of exhausting circumstance?

Knowing your avoidance patterns allow you to address what scares you. Then, you can reduce the amount of anxiety limiting your existence.

Teenager thinking about the mathematical formula on the board symbolizing Borkovec's Cognitive Avoidance Theory
Early on in life, we get used to what makes us uncomfortable.

Borkovec’s theory of cognitive avoidance

The “feel the fear and do it anyway” attitude doesn’t always work. While you’d love to be able to immediately react in all those situations that cause you anguish, life isn’t like that. You procrastinate, not because you’re lazy, but because certain tasks make you afraid or anxious.

Some people fall victim to alcoholism or other addictive behaviors because they need to escape their suffering. Others feel hurt and continue to carry their traumas around with them instead of addressing them. This means they might yell at their partners and project their frustrations onto them.

We all postpone, avoid, evade and escape from what disturbs us in a futile attempt to believe certain realities don’t exist. It gives us a deceptive sense of control.

However, using this deficient mechanism for escaping from what you don’t like only increases your worry. After all, your negative emotions are still there, lying dormant. In fact, emotional pain, anguish, fear, and frustration intensify your negative and obsessive thinking. Indeed, in the long run, if you have an avoidant mind, it reinforces your psychological suffering.

Borkovec’s cognitive avoidance theory explains how this mechanism works and how you can turn it off.

Worry and emotional dysfunction lie behind avoidance behaviors.

Thinking everything will go wrong

In a 2006 study, University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist and professor, Thomas Borkovec, defined a theory explaining what lies behind avoidance behavior. He claims that people often strive to find a mental resolution to their problems. But, with these attempts, all they do is imagine even more negative and catastrophic results.

Let’s give a simple example. Imagine this weekend you have to give a speech and the situation is making you anxious. You try to think about what to do so the presentation is a success and everything goes well, but you’re convinced you’ll mess up and make a fool of yourself. As you believe that you won’t be able to face the situation, you choose to avoid it and claim that you’re sick.

In effect, your fear and negative thoughts that reinforce some of your ideas make you think that certain situations are beyond your control. This perception, that there are areas of your life that you can’t control, raises your anxiety level. To appease it, you choose to avoid what you should be facing. These kinds of psychological experiences are the foundation of anxiety disorders.

Emotional dysfunction and somatic sensations

Your brain likes two things: security and thinking that it has everything under control. However, life is uncertain and, while there are many areas that you can control, there are many others that you can’t. Knowing how to navigate between certainties and uncertainties is an exercise in well-being and courage.

Borkovec’s theory of cognitive avoidance claims that there’s feedback between negatively valenced emotions and dysfunctional thoughts. On the one hand, lies fear, shame, and anxiety. On the other, lies those catastrophic ideas that further intensify negative emotional states.

If this vicious circle of concern is particularly intense, somatic alterations occur (headache, muscle tension, etc). This creates a more intense and debilitating pattern of suffering. Therefore, avoidance behaviors are intensified in order to reduce physical discomfort.

For example, imagine you know you have to start a specific project, but just thinking about it gives you a stomach ache. You’re convinced it’ll go wrong and that you’ll fail which makes you feel bad. So, you decide to put it off and do something that makes you feel better, like going out with your friends. But, the more you procrastinate, the less time you’ll have to accomplish the task and the more anxiety you’ll experience.

Behind avoidance behaviors, lie certain realities that must be addressed and resolved.

Man thinking about Borkovec's cognitive avoidance theory
Worry also encourages the appearance of somatic disorders. This reinforces avoidance behaviors even more.

How to deal with avoidant behaviors

As the psychiatrist Carl Jung pointed out, what you accept transforms you, and what you deny submits you. That’s the mantra you should internalize to address your behaviors of flight and denial. Borkovec’s theory of cognitive avoidance claims that we all harbor escape behaviors that we should detect, review, and confront.

Let’s take another example. Sometimes, to reduce your anxiety and stress, you might go shopping and end up buying items you don’t need. Other people choose to disconnect mentally and spend hours on their cell phones. There are also those who fall into the trap of counterproductive behaviors such as addictions or eating disorders.

Behind avoidance lies fear, anxiety, unhappiness, trauma, and a host of uncomfortable realities that you’re failing to address. These dimensions are porous. They permeate your thoughts, bringing chronic worry and dysfunctional and irrational ideas. So, what can you do about it?

You have to deal with your internal experiences if you want to better control your external ones. Running away doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it only increases your suffering which is the origin of most of your mental problems. Therefore, you should seek specialized help and pay attention to what really matters; what you’re trying to escape from.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Hirsch CR, Mathews A. A cognitive model of pathological worry. Behav Res Ther. 2012 Oct;50(10):636-46. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2012.06.007. Epub 2012 Jul 7. PMID: 22863541; PMCID: PMC3444754.
  • Newman MG, Llera SJ. A novel theory of experiential avoidance in generalized anxiety disorder: a review and synthesis of research supporting a contrast avoidance model of worry. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011 Apr;31(3):371-82. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.01.008. Epub 2011 Jan 26. PMID: 21334285; PMCID: PMC3073849.
  • Sibrava, N. J., & Borkovec, T. D. (2006). The Cognitive Avoidance Theory of Worry. In G. C. L. Davey & A. Wells (Eds.), Worry and its psychological disorders: Theory, assessment and treatment (pp. 239–256). Wiley Publishing.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.