The human brain is fascinating. We like to think of ourselves as logical – believing that our thoughts and emotions are based only on our knowledge and experiences.
That is anything but true.
One amazing example of this is with what are known as “avoidance behaviors,” which play a big role in CBT and anxiety therapy. To understand the effects of avoidance behaviors, let’s use a common fear that many of us have: a fear of spiders.
An Irrational Fear
Most spiders are not dangerous. They rarely bite, they’re afraid of humans, and their toxins are not powerful enough to cause any real damage. The most common spiders in NYC, like the house spider, do not even have teeth that can break skin.
Even the black widow spider bites are never fatal to anyone over the age of 5 and under the age of 65, and rarely fatal to those age groups, and there are essentially no black widow spiders in all of Brooklyn or New York City for this to be an issue.
Yet, many of us still fear spiders. We can discuss the origins of this fear at another time (irrational fears are another reason the human brain is so fascinating) but in this case, let’s talk about what happens when we have this fear:
- We see a spider and we run away.
- We avoid places that have spiders.
- We ask other people in the house without a fear of spiders to get rid of it for us.
These are examples of avoidance behaviors. They are very common for those that have anxiety. As anxiety therapists in NYC, many – if not most – of our patients will show some type of avoidance behavior when they come to us with an anxiety issue.
Now, you would think that avoiding spiders is a natural reaction to fear. You would also think that avoiding spiders is an emotionally-neutral reaction. Meaning, that avoiding something you fear isn’t going to make you fear it any more or any less. But study after study has shown that this is not the case.
In fact, what studies show is that when we avoid something, we *reinforce the fear*. Avoiding something tells the fear part of our brains that it is correct to fear the subject, and the result is that you are *more* likely to fear it in the future.
Why this occur is not entirely clear, but it is called “negative reinforcement.” Taking away or avoiding a bad thing reinforces an idea, thought, or emotion that we have. It’s why logic alone often isn’t enough to get rid of a fear. You might know that spiders are not dangerous, for example, but the more you avoid them, the more your brain thinks that they are.
Anxiety Therapy with CBT in NYC
Flourish Psychology, a Brooklyn-based private practice, works with many patients that are struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Identifying avoidance behaviors is part of the process for treating anxiety, and one of the many core components of CBT. If you struggle with anxiety, contact Flourish Psychology, today.