Procrastination isn’t good for you, and neither is avoiding the things you need to do. I know that. I know that for a fact.
Yet, the other day, I realized in a flash of panic that I had three extremely important things to do that I had just been passively avoiding for weeks – some for months, actually – and just had to muster the courage to face before it got too late. I needed to :
- send a tax adjustment to the government (I made a small-ish mistake in my tax declaration and it’s been haunting me since I realized it)
- send an email to my university’s administration to get my previous diploma’s classes credited so I can graduate this year (which. I’d like to be able to do. Tuition isn’t cheap.)
- renew my medical insurance and my address on my social security card (it expires in a month and I have medical appointments I need to have that card / insurance for!)
Those three are, taken separately, pretty simple things that might take some time but aren’t necessarily complicated to do, and they’re clearly important enough that I should have come around to doing them a while ago. So how did it get to this point ?
Sometimes, when something generates a lot of anxiety or overwhelms you, the unconscious reaction is to avoid it, as a coping mechanism : if you don’t think about that thing, then it can’t cause you any distress.
The problem with avoidance as a coping mechanism is that it teaches your brain that you aren’t capable of facing what causes you this type of anxiety, that it’s just so overwhelming that the only solution is to push it as much away from your conscious mind as possible.
In essence, it’s the difference between stress management – the good thing, the one where you confront what’s stressing you out and deal with it in a way that makes you less stressed – and stress avoidance – where you ignore the stressors and hope they go away on their own (which they don’t.).
In the short run, sure, not thinking about it will make you feel better, help you not get overwhelmed by what you’re trying to avoid. But in the long run, it’s likely to turn your initial reaction to this stressor into an even bigger one – making it worse and worse until you either have to deal with the cause of your stress (in my case : those 3 administrative tasks that really really need to be done) or with the consequences of not doing it (here : losing my insurance so I can’t go see the dentist, or not being able to graduate this year because my classes haven’t been credited on time).
How to stop doing it
At the time I’m typing this, my papers for the class credit have been sent and half the classes have been approved, and my medical insurance has been renewed – I still have to take care of the social security and the tax returns, but it’s a work in progress. I’m getting there.
So how do you deal with avoidance as a coping mechanism?
I don’t have a universal method for this, but the thing that works for me – that actually works and forces me to confront what’s causing that behavior while not provoking even more distress – is to:
1 . Tackle one thing at a time.
Here, I’ve got three separate problems I’ve been avoiding unsuccessfully. I’m not going to try to solve all of these in the same day : that’s more likely to make me panic and quit / have a panic attack than succeed, and we’re trying to find a better solution than that. So I’m focusing on solving one after the other, step by step.
2 . Divide them into easily manageable chunks
Just like studying for midterms, if you try to do it all in one go, it’s going to be much more difficult than if you take the time to separate it into more manageable tasks that you can take care of efficiently and without too much stress.
For the class credits, I divided it like this : check out necessary papers / fill out class credit form / retreive official grades from my previous university / write email to the person in charge of class credits / add papers to the email and send.
While that may look like a lot of extra steps if you’re someone who’s not bothered with anxiety at the idea of doing important administrative papers, this was the right way to do it for me : it helped me stay focused on the small tasks I was doing, instead of thinking about the issue as a whole and getting overwhelmed by what was at stake here (and panicking. A lot.)
3 . Don’t hesitate to ask for help
It’s easy to drown in something like this if you’re alone and have to do all of it on your own. But if you have anyone you can count on, someone you can ask some help from, then don’t hesitate to do so. My partner helped a lot, actually – not in actually doing the tasks that generated all that anxiety, but in making myself confident enough that I could handle them on my own.
Be it someone who can re-read your email before you send it for that internship you really want, someone who’s there to help you figure out which papers go where, or even just a friend to stay with you at that party where you’re so anxious to go because you won’t know anyone else… A little support can go a long way.
And if you feel like you don’t know where to even start, or that anxiety is significantly deteriorating your mental health, please consider speaking with a licensed therapist, who has the skills and knowledge needed to best assist you with these issues.