Reasons Why Avoidance Behavior Increases Anxiety

Anxiety is sometimes maintained by a mechanism referred to as avoidance behavior. This article explains why running away from a situation can feed said anxiety, explaining what negative reinforcement is.
Reasons Why Avoidance Behavior Increases Anxiety

Last update: 07 April, 2021

Avoidance behavior leads to anxiety. This is like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger and you don’t notice it until there’s nothing you can do about it. Many things can lead to anxiety in a person. There are also various maintaining factors that increase it.

Some of the mechanisms by which anxiety lingers, both in specific situations and in a generalized way, are avoidance and negative escape reinforcement.

Before explaining these terms, you must know what negative reinforcement is and the difference between reinforcement and punishment.

Furthermore, operant conditioning, whose greatest exponent is Skinner, is a psychological current that studies the mechanisms of learning through the emission of reinforcement and punishment. This discipline studies how the probability of a given behavior increases when reinforced. Also, how a response tends to disappear when said reinforcer is no longer there.

There are both positive and negative reinforcements and punishments. Positive reinforcement is that which adds something, while negative reinforcement subtracts. It’s important not to confuse terms, as “negative” doesn’t necessarily mean “punishment”.

“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”

-Saul Bellow-

A distressed woman.

Examples of reinforcers

A reinforcer, which increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur, can either be positive or negative.

  • Positive. A child may receive a bag of candy if they do something well. The positive reinforcement, something added, is the candy in this case.
  • Negative. A person who’s cold may put on a coat. This is negative reinforcement because something aversive goes away, the cold in this case. Thus, a person is more likely to put on a coat because it’s taken away the cold on previous occasions. Another example would be getting off a bus when afraid. The negative reinforcer is the avoidance of anxiety when getting off the bus, as it removes the feeling of discomfort. A person reinforces the behavior by removing something they fear. Therefore, there’ll be a greater probability that they’ll get off the bus again in the future as the fear once disappeared by doing so.

An illustrative example: Reyes’ anxiety

Now you know that punishment and negative reinforcement are two opposite ideas (since punishment suppresses a behavior, while negative reinforcement maintains it). Here’s an illustrative example that may allow you to understand why negative reinforcement maintains anxiety.

Reyes has anxiety. He defines himself as an anxious person with frequent panic attacks. He says he first felt this anxiety during a subway ride, so he hasn’t rode it since. This makes his life difficult because there’s a ban on vehicles in his city.

Escape conditioning

The disappearance of certain stimuli immediately after the occurrence of a response will increase its probability of continuing. These stimuli usually generate discomfort in a person.

In the previous example, faced with the stimulus of discomfort in the bus, Reyes opts for an escapist behavior, getting off the bus. Thus, getting off the bus becomes a reinforced behavior when the discomfort disappears. For this reason, Reyes takes a bus but then feels discomfort and gets off every time, and the probability that this response will happen again increases. It consolidates it in a way.

There’s escape conditioning, or negative reinforcement, which isn’t necessarily harmful. For example, you close your eyes when a light flashes, or get rid of the cold by putting on a coat.

However, if Reyes continued to ride the subway, even with the possibility of escaping, his anxiety would’ve surely reduced by a process of exposure. The problem comes when a person thinks that riding the subway is bad and avoids it altogether, instead of getting off of it from time to time.

Reinforcement by avoidance behavior

Contrary to escape conditioning, avoidance reinforcement states that the frequency of behavior will increase if it prevents the occurrence of an aversive stimulus. The difference is that the escape response eliminates one that’s already occurred, while avoidance prevents its occurrence.

Running away from something that’s aversive or unpleasant may seem natural, but it’s a rather counterproductive way of coping. Not only does avoidance reduce anxiety by allowing you not to border on that aversive stimulus. It also makes the person incapable of testing the harmlessness of the aversive stimulus and it maintains the fear of the aversive stimulus.

In Reyes’s example, the fact that he never takes the subway makes him less anxious because he has no contact with it. However, he’s unable to prove that the subway itself isn’t dangerous and it perpetuates his irrational ideas about it. Thus, he maintains them over time.

Moreover, it keeps the processes of habituation to the stimulus and extinction of anxiety from taking place by both escaping and avoiding something.

A woman running in the woods.

Avoidance behavior is a triple-edged sword

Finally, it’s important to note that avoidance behavior limits a person’s life, just as it does Reyes’ by not being able to travel. A person with anxiety problems can avoid a myriad of situations which, in the long run, can take a toll on their mood and create many more.

Some people actually stop making plans with friends. They also give up hobbies they used to enjoy and even withdraw into their homes. The impact on the mental health of these individuals can be huge. This is why focusing on their avoidance of an aversive stimulus should be one of the main goals of therapy during the treatment of anxiety disorders.

All this has daily life applications as well. For instance, Reyes is going to meet some friends and begins to get anxious on the bus. The recommended course of action is for him to stay in an anxiogenic situation. At least until his anxiety reaches its peak. This is because it’ll then begin to diminish.

Logically, the intention here isn’t about taking away a person’s tools with which to manage their anxiety. The point is for this outing with friends not to be conditioned as an aversive stimulus. It’s mainly about the person staying on the bus long enough to verify that the perceived threat isn’t real. Thus, don’t run away and try to manage your anxiety at any given moment. Remember that anxiety will go down right after it reaches its highest peak.

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  • Baeza Villarroel, J. (1994) ISBN: 84-490-0131-5. Clínica de la Ansiedad.