Those of us who run anxious can tell you point blank common bodily sensations experienced (rapid heartbeat, restlessness, difficulty sitting still), thoughts (worry, recurrent thoughts of doom, difficulty concentrating or focusing on a task) but may be hesitant to talk about the frequency of avoidance and/or checking behaviors that go along with the territory.

What are avoidance and checking behaviors?

Avoidance behaviors are procrastination- putting tasks off, not making a phone call, cancelling plans, doing other activities, not talking to people.  In phobias it looks like not doing the thing you are afraid of.  They all seem justified in the moment- I’m too stressed, I feel sick, I’m tired- all really good excuses and likely true and valid.

Checking behaviors are just that- checking to see if you have a text or call on the cellular, the stove is turned off, door is locked, keys in purse.  They are not bad or wrong, they just are part of the anxiety.  Question to ask yourself- do you feel that you must check in order to feel safe?

What is important for you to look at is the effect they have on your day-to-day functioning.  When you deliberately avoid something, you are calming your central nervous system temporarily but in the long run teaching your brain that whatever you are avoiding isn’t safe or will cause distress.  So, it learns from that and then it gets reinforced every time you avoid.  This grows the anxiety and makes it harder for you to do the task you are avoiding.  It’s feeding the anxiety- it grows.

The same goes with checking behavior.  You are signaling to your brain that in order for you to feel safe you must check.  That teaches your brain that it’s the only way to feel safe which makes your brain rely on it.  Similar to the above reasoning for avoidance, you are reinforcing the behavior of checking, and telling your brain it can only relax after you check.

Why do we do this?  Some kind of reasoning of the anxious brain, which isn’t always logical or rational at all.  There could have been a time in your past where you faced a threat and weren’t ready for it and somehow this affected you.  With me, it was leaving my keys in my car and locking myself out.  It took an hour and a hassle for me to get in my car again, so after that I developed a checking behavior of always making sure I had my keys with me when I got out of that car and all other cars.  This doesn’t seem so bad- what’s wrong with a little checking? It started to cause some symptoms for me each time I got out of a car, and I then increased my checking behavior, where I checked not just once but several times before I got out, and did not feel ok until I did it.  Do you see the difference?  I relied on my checking in order to feel calm.  And then even after checking 5 times I still felt anxious with the thought that I could maybe drop my keys or lose them or not be cautious enough to prevent them from being stolen.  The “What if?”  thoughts started coming and then bam I’m in that anxious spiral of misery.

I’m not telling you to stop avoiding and checking all together all of the time.  Well, maybe I am to a degree.  Start with a decrease in the frequency of stopping it if going “cold turkey” scares you.  There are other ways to remind your brain you are safe.  You can start with your thoughts.  First start- become aware of your behavior.  Notice if you are checking or avoiding things.  Reflect on it and challenge yourself to begin to shift your attention on a different, less anxious thought. Also focus on your body- Try possibly using some deep breathing, or exhaling out longer than your inhale, do sensory grounding exercises like rubbing your hands together, looking around the area for certain colors, noticing all of the sounds you hear or smell, tasting something in your mouth. Staying in the present moment. You may remind yourself you are safe and have what you need, or can get support if needed.

Reward yourself for even taking the step to be aware of your behaviors so you can invite them to shift.  Doing things differently can be unsettling and downright frightening- a little positive reinforcement for all efforts to help yourself is justified.

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