Want to Stop Avoiding? What Would That Mean to You?

Feb 23

Avoidance is a common human behavior that has good intentions but can spiral out of control until, before we realize it, we’re trapped, boxed in by anxiety and blocked from fully living (see What is Avoidance Doing to You?) Avoidance is fear- and anxiety-based. Whether we avoid one situation, such as making or taking phone calls, or almost every situation, such as anything that takes us out of the house, we are letting anxiety limit our lives.

Is “letting” the right word? Do we actively permit anxiety to cause avoidance? Of course we don’t actively invite anxiety and avoidance into our lives. The vast majority of people who are plagued by avoidance, including avoidance in its most extreme form—avoidant personality disorder—do not want to avoid and are not actively choosing it. The problem is this: avoidance, once started, quickly takes over thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It looks like this:

The cycle of anxiey, fear, and avoidance keeps people trapped.

At first, everything is pretty much even in the cycle of anxiety and avoidance, avoidance actually increases anxiety over time, which strengthens avoidance. The cycle begins to look like this:

In the cycle of anxiety, fear, and avoidance, anxiety and avoidance make each other stronger. There's a way to shrink them.

While initially, avoiding something that causes anxiety does reduce that anxiety. But the human mind doesn’t like to be confined, and we begin to think of freedom of action, freedom of being. That causes anxiety, which causes avoidance. Anxiety and avoidance feed on each other, and they grow bigger and more powerful. Strangely but surely, avoidance doesn’t reduce anxiety anymore. It makes it ever stronger.

As daunting as this cycle of avoidance and anxiety is, we can break it. The key lies within the cycle itself.

To break the cycle of anxiety and avoidance, fill your life with meaning and purpose.

How to Break The Cycle of Anxiety and Avoidance

Thoughts about the people and things that make us anxious do increase anxiety and avoidance. Those very thoughts, though, are the keys to breaking the cycle and reducing anxiety and fear. Use the keys to unlock your doors to freedom.

To turn the key, you must first insert it into the keyhole. At first, you’ll discover surface-level thoughts that are easily overrun by anxiety. Have you ever tried to turn a key and unlock a door when the key is only partially inserted? It doesn’t work. You have to insert it completely.

It’s the same with anxiety, anxious thoughts, and avoidance. Buried under all of the worries, uncertainties, what-ifs, and fears lie your hopes, dreams, wisdom, and more—the whole of you. The heart of all of it—the key, the hole, the stuff inside the hole, the stuff beyond the locked door, and you yourself—are meaning and purpose. 

When you identify and embrace your greater purpose, that which gives meaning to your life, you begin to break that cycle of anxiety and avoidance. The more you intentionally think about your purpose, the more your thoughts shift toward meaning. The more you focus on meaning, the less you are focusing on anxiety. Purpose and meaning are so much more powerful than anxiety, stress, depression, and any other problems and challenges we face. Honing our sense of purpose doesn’t directly “cure” anything, but it allows us to transcend our struggles and live well anyway.

Develop your purpose and meaning thoughtfully. Consider question such as:

  • What brings you joy?
  • What is important to you?
  • What actions make you feel good about yourself and the world?
  • What do you value?

These are just a few thoughts along the path of meaning-making. When we have a sense of greater purpose, it becomes possible (not necessarily easy, at least initially) to stop avoiding. Develop your reason, your purpose, your “why,” and the “how” will follow. (Check out Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: Why and How. It’s more about purpose than it is the holiday.)

My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel tells the story of Brian Cunningham, a man who has lived with debilitating anxiety and avoidant personality disorder and a sense of stranger danger for nearly all of his 37 years. It isn’t until he discovers meaning that he begins to, little by little, create freedom from his own prison.

Usually, I mow my small front lawn and trim the hedges on Monday mornings. The weekends are a bad time for me to do this because one, I’m typically camping, and two, there are more neighbors out and about on the weekends than on a Monday morning. I don’t know my neighbors. I’ve never had to talk to them. I certainly don’t want to change that now after seventeen years of planned isolation. However, I’m home this Sunday because of my failed camping trip. Further, I have a dreaded appointment with Dr. Greene tomorrow and thus will be unable to perform my Monday lawn maintenance. That’s how I came to be working in the front yard today when I saw Abigail Harris trudging down the sidewalk across the street.

My need to hide from people is so deeply ingrained that it has become instinctive. Automatically upon spotting her, I duck behind the cluster of large rhododendron bushes I’m pruning at the moment. I peer around the side of one of the bushes and see her shuffling slowly down the walk, head down. I wonder where those small pink and purple tennis shoes are taking her. I’ll learn the answer to that shortly because it is reprehensible for me to be cowering behind a bush while there is a tired-looking seven-year-old child walking slowly down a sidewalk all alone.

Crossing my fingers that nobody steps outside and approaches me to see what’s going on, I take a deep breath and dash out from behind the bush and run across the street. My intent is to get to Abigail immediately, before anything bad happens to her. 


Anxiety and avoidance become almost instinctive. Learn what makes it possible to change the instinct.


It’s true. The cycle of anxiety and avoidance becomes so strong that it’s automatic, almost instinctive. Your purpose and meaning, though, are strong enough to turn the key, break the cycle, and set yourself free. What brings you meaning? How will you develop it? What will it be like for you when anxiety and avoidance are history?


Tune in to the Wellbeing & Words YouTube channel to hear more about meaning and a different passage from My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel.

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Filed Under: Wellbeing & Words

SOS! What OCD Treatment Will Help Me?

Sep 27

OCD treatment can seem impossible. Yet OCD help and treatment are available. Here, learn about OCD treatments ERP and a new app called nOCD.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a cruel disorder to live with. It involves obsessions, repeated thoughts that cause sometimes-unbearable anxiety. To tame the fierce anxiety and get the thoughts to stop, or at least slow, someone with OCD often performs patterned behavior, or compulsions.

These obsessions and compulsions alone are cruel, but adding to the pain of OCD is the fact that most people with OCD know that the anxiety and fear are disproportionate to the situation and are even rather irrational. They know it intellectually, but the brain goes into freak-out mode anyway. Physical and emotional responses escalate, even when the intellectual part of the brain tries to reason with the anxiety.

The nature of OCD makes treatment difficult and frustrating. That doesn’t mean, however, that OCD can’t be treated. It can. Successfully.

Treatment & Help for OCD

The two treatments that research has shown to be effective for reducing obsessions and compulsions so people can live a full life are medication and a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) called exposure response prevention (ERP). According to the International OCD Foundation, about 70 percent of people seeking treatment for OCD benefit from medication and/or ERP.

ERP involves exposure to those things (in both your inner- and outer worlds) that trigger anxiety and fear. You face them, experience them, accept their presence and notice the increasing anxiety you feel. The response prevention component involves making a choice, a commitment, to be with the anxiety without engaging in a compulsive behavior in an attempt to relieve the anxiety.

Does ERP sound just a tad intimidating? That’s because it is. It goes against all human instinct to purposely expose yourself to a trigger then choose to do nothing about it. (Well, you’re not doing “nothing.” You’re learning how to face it and reduce the degree to which it bothers you. You’re just not succumbing to your compulsions.)

ERP is done with support, especially at first. Expecting you to expose yourself to a distressing thought, situation, place, object, etc. with no help through it would be as cruel, if not more so, than OCD itself. Support is as important as the exposure and the response prevention components of ERP. (Maybe it should be called SERP or ERPS.)

Why is Support so Important in OCD treatment?

A little story will illustrate the importance of support during ERP treatment. In the book My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, Brian Cunningham is a man who, while he doesn’t have OCD, suffers from debilitating anxiety. He begins to see a therapist, who mentions that they’ll eventually engage in exposure therapy. A situation arises that makes him decide to try exposure on his own, at a crowded grocery store.

When I pull into Albertson’s I sit in my car for what feels like a long time and just stare at the building. The doors keep sliding open and shut, like a monster’s maw, sucking shoppers in and spitting them out. There are so many people. Before I can leave my vehicle, I have to breathe into one of my paper bags. I have to keep shoving the bag down when people walk close to my car so they don’t see me lamely hyperventilating into a bag. Finally, my breathing approaches normal and I can enter the store. The moment I step inside, I regret attempting this experiment.

Brian has an extensive panic attack that lands him in his therapist’s office for an emergency session. This is part of their conversation:

“You mentioned last time that we’d do exposure therapy and in vivo therapy, so I was trying it and failed.”

Even though everything is liquid, I can see her smile. “We’ll do those things because they are effective, but it’s far too early. We need to take this one small step at a time.”

Brian went out on his own and purposely exposed himself to triggers. This increased his already intense anxiety, and if he had OCD, it would likely have led him to do the compulsions rather than resisting them.

It would be great if everyone with OCD (or with anxiety disorders like Brian) had a therapist constantly with them. Too bad it’s not possible. But wait! Maybe it is.

Enter nOCD into Effective OCD Treatment

nOCD isn’t a therapist, but it is an excellent support and treatment OCD treatment and help can seem impossible. Yet OCD help and treatment are available. Here, read about OCD treatments ERP and a new app called nOCD.tool for OCD. It’s an app, so it can be with you at all times, whether you use a smartphone or smartwatch.

You create structured, daily ERP plans (this app is yours; OCD is different for everyone, and treatment should be, too). You use proven exposure response prevention therapy to decrease your symptoms, and you use it with your therapist for feedback and support. Your nOCD app also gathers your data so you can see what is working best and what needs adjusting.

nOCD was developed by people with OCD who know what it’s like, who know how obsessive thoughts and anxieties caused by those thoughts as well as by external triggers can severely limit your life. The developers know how the compulsions can be so time-consuming that you miss import things that you really don’t want to miss.

The creators of nOCD know, too, that treatment is possible and that ERP can be successful with the right structure and support. Thus nOCD was born. It’s your mobile treatment and support app to help you live free and well. The cost of the app? Nothing! It’s free in order to give people access to this OCD treatment technology.

OCD treatment can seem impossible. Yet OCD help and treatment are available. Here, learn about ERP and a new app called nOCD.Check it out, and download it. Take charge of your treatment! (If Brian Cunningham had had this, he might have been better able to deal with his grocery shopping experience.)



Filed Under: Wellbeing & Words

Can Novels Really Humanize Mental Illness?

Aug 17


“How did Tanya J. Peterson know what is going on inside my head?  Can she read my thoughts? My Life in a Nutshell hit very close to home for me.” —Teressa M. with Window on the World

To receive such a comment is one of the most meaningful, and the most exciting, compliments I could possibly receive as a novelist. My characters face mental health challenges and live with mental illness, and it’s my hope that readers bond deeply with my characters and maybe even love them. Why? It will lead to increased understanding and empathy in the real world.

I write novels about mental illness and mental health challenges. My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel tells Brian Cunningham’s story. Brian lives with debilitating anxiety disorders, and he lives a severely limited life. He’s lonely, but he feels powerless to do a thing about it. A seven-year-old child named Abigail wriggles her way into Brian’s closed-off world, resulting in increased pain yet increased potential for life.

Oliver Graham and Penelope Baker (and her fiancé William) are the focus of Leave of Absence. Oliver, crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression after the traumatic loss of his family, is hospitalized against his will. Penelope, wrestling with schizophrenia and the harm it has done to her life, wants to set her fiancée free. Will friendship and connection help them?

Novels humanize mental illness and increase empathy for people living with mental health challenges.I do indeed hope that readers fall in love with Brain and Abigail, Oliver, Penelope, and William. To love them is to connect with them. Human connection is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Connection to characters leads to increased connection, empathy, and understanding of people in the real world outside the pages of a novel.

I’m a nationally certified counselor. I also have personal experience with mental illness. I’ve lived with anxiety disorders (generalized and social), biopolar 1 disorder, and the effects of brain injury. In my life experience, I’ve learned that mental illness is misunderstood.

The illnesses, be they depression, anxiety, PTSD, depression, or a whole host of others, are misunderstood, which means that people who live with them are misunderstood. Misunderstanding can lead to fear and prejudice, which makes those living with mental health challenges feel isolated, alone, and hopeless.

I write novels—Leave of Absence, My Life in a Nutshell, and Twenty-four Shadows (coming in spring, 2016) to deepen empathy and compassion, to humanize mental illness. When people love the characters in a novel, they empathize with them. That empathy is often transferred to real-life human beings. Additionally, and icing on the cake, people can be entertained in the process as they enjoy connecting and loving characters.

“Here’s the thing about Peterson’s work: her characters are key. Peterson isn’t afraid to show the true side of human nature, to open doors that society has slammed closed, and examine what truly makes us tick. I fell in love with her two main characters in My Life in a Nutshell.” — Ellen M. with The Canon

Humanizing Mental Illness; Increasing Empathy


En-JOY is an Action Verb: Mental Health Means Enjoying a Life Worth Living

May 12


The term mental health has become quite a buzz word (and well it should), but as a concept, it is very broad. What does mental health really mean? At its core, it means not merely the absence of illness; mental health means thriving and enjoying a life worth living.

Mental Health Awareness Month is in full swing, and how wonderful it is.  To have an entire month dedicated to increasing awareness about mental health and wellbeing is in itself something to celebrate. It means that we as humans want to be well, to not only exist but to live and to thrive, and we want to raise awareness so that this wellness can be achieved by all.

Truly, mental health and a life worth living can indeed be achieved by everyone. Happily, these concepts don’t discriminate. Each and every human being on this planet can create his/her own life worth living. Positive psychology is a field dedicated to helping people transcend challenges and problems and make meaning in their own lives.

To transcend problems is not necessarily to completely get rid of them. That’s not always so realistic. We, as human beings, face myriad challenges in our lives, including (and certainly not limited to) various physical and mental illnesses. Do these health challenges mean that a life worth living is out of reach? Is it possible to thrive and have wellness while simultaneously living with a physical or mental illness?

The answer is simple, and admittedly it’s not necessarily easy: a resounding and confident yes. Really? Is it really possible for someone living with depression or anxiety, for example, to thrive? (Yes.) Does he/she need to wait for the depression or anxiety to be gone in order to live a life worth living? (No.)

Here's how enjoy is an action verb and how we can use it to create mental health and a life worth living.Creating a life worth living is a grand adventure, a majestic quest that begins with a mere step and continues one small step at a time. At the heart of it is finding joy, day by day and moment by moment. Mental health means thriving and enjoying a life worth living.

Enjoying a life worth living. En-JOY is an action verb. A question to explore over and over again is how can I create joy in this moment (or this hour or during this event, etc.)? This isn’t a superficial joy or putting on a superficial—and artificial—happy face. This is about paying attention to who you are, where you are, and what you are doing and creating joy in that moment.

As someone who once experienced a significant amount of social anxiety, I used to live in fear of being judged wherever I went. While I was able to make myself go out and about in the world, I did so with anxiety and dread. One time, I vented to a mentor that I didn’t want to attend a certain event because I knew I would do something stupid and make everyone look down on me more than they already did. My mentor merely grunted and said, “What do you care what people think? Does it matter? Just go have fun and enjoy the experience.”

Perhaps you’re thinking what I initially did, that he completely trivialized my anxiety and clearly didn’t understand. Thanks to my superhuman ability to ruminate, I mulled over his comment repeatedly, for days. And nights. And more days. Eventually, his remarks began to blend with what I already knew about positive psychology, counseling, and wellness. It spilled over into other areas of my personal life and experiences as well as into my experiences in working with others. Things began to click.

No matter our challenges, we can all take an active role in owning our own lives. We can create joy, even little joys, in our lives. Feeling that life isn’t worth living? Find things that you are grateful for, that you like and that you enjoy, and focus more on them. Perhaps it’s fresh air but the thought of going out of the house makes you want to hide in bed and never get out. How about opening a window and enjoying the feel of the air? Then later what about opening the door? Then maybe enjoy a step or two outside. Concentrate on how good these things feel rather than how hard they are or what might happen. Little by little, you are en-JOYing your life.

Once I understood that “enjoy” is an action verb and that I could thus act to make joy in my life, to make my life worth living, I found myself transcending my anxiety. I didn’t need it to go away before I could have a life worth living. Waiting doesn’t work. Instead, I took charge of enjoying my life and making it worth living. It was then that I found that true happiness (not a problem-free happiness but a core satisfaction with life and all of its ups and downs and twists and turns) means actively making joy rather than passively waiting for it to appear.

My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel is the story of two people who don’t quite know how to live in the world—the man, Brian, because of debilitating anxiety; the girl, Abigail, because of instability and abuse.  Neither one of them feels they have a life worth living until they slowly begin to create joy. One time, Abigail says enthusiastically, “Come on, Brian. Let’s go play in the rain!” That, right there, is the embodiment of enjoyment. Play in your rain!