Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause you to avoid certain thoughts, people, places, and more. However, with treatment, you can learn to cope with these triggers.

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after a stressful or traumatic event.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 1 in 11 people in the United States will develop PTSD in their lifetime.

Health experts commonly group PTSD symptoms into four categories:

  • avoidance
  • intrusion
  • cognitive and mood changes
  • arousal and reactivity changes

Avoidance is one of the most common symptoms of PTSD. It can significantly affect your quality of life.

Ahead, we explore what you need to know about the avoidance symptoms of PTSD, including how this symptom can affect people with the condition and how to get treatment.

Avoidance is one of the many defense mechanisms we have as humans to help us avoid danger and threats.

But as helpful as avoidance can be in keeping us safe, it can also become a maladaptive behavior — a behavior that works against us.

Avoidance can seem like a helpful behavior to people living with PTSD because it allows them to avoid uncomfortable or distressing emotions or sensations.

But the anxious avoidance cycle can actually make things worse:

  1. When we experience something that makes us anxious, it produces a cascade of mental and physical symptoms, like racing thoughts and a fast heart rate.
  2. We don’t like the way these distressing symptoms feel, so we naturally find ourselves trying to avoid them.
  3. We successfully avoid the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety by avoiding our triggers, and it brings us short-term relief.
  4. In the process, we teach our brains that these triggers and the sensations they cause are dangerous and that we can’t tolerate our emotions.

Ultimately, the more you avoid your anxiety and the things that make you anxious, the worse your anxiety and avoidance become.

Is avoidance a common symptom of PTSD?

Yes. Avoidance is one of four categories of PTSD symptoms and one of the defining criteria of the disorder under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).

According to the DSM-5-TR, avoidance in PTSD can include either of the following behaviors:

  • avoiding or attempting to avoid distressing thoughts, feelings, or memories related to the traumatic event
  • avoiding or attempting to avoid people, places, situations, or other related things associated with the traumatic event

Although avoidance is a common feature of PTSD, it’s also present in a lot of other anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, and more.

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Avoidance can relieve uncomfortable and distressing symptoms in the short term, but this relief comes at a cost. Not only does avoidance worsen anxiety symptoms, but the avoidance cycle can also affect the way we feel about ourselves.

In one 2022 study, researchers explored the relationship between avoidance, trauma-related shame, and PTSD symptoms in 60 women with interpersonal trauma.

Researchers found avoidance was associated with greater trauma-related shame and more severe PTSD symptoms.

Frequently avoiding the things we view as threatening can also cause our brain to start viewing non-threats as dangerous, too.

In another 2022 study, researchers analyzed the effects of avoidance on reading social cues in situations unrelated to trauma.

Study participants with PTSD were more likely to avoid looking at people with “sad” expressions despite them not necessarily indicating a threat.

Over time, constantly trying to avoid distressing thoughts, emotions, and situations can make it difficult to do the things you need to do — or enjoy the things you enjoy doing.

Several treatment options exist for PTSD, including medications and therapy approaches.

One of the most effective therapy options for avoidance in PTSD is prolonged exposure (PE) therapy.

PE is an exposure technique in which you are gradually exposed to trauma-related thoughts, feelings, memories, or situations in a safe environment. As these cues become less distressing and uncomfortable, your anxiety decreases and your brain learns there is no need to avoid them.

In addition to therapy, certain medications can also help reduce PTSD symptoms. Some of these medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and certain serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).

PTSD resources

PTSD symptoms like avoidance can make it hard to function at your best every day. However, treatment can help you learn how to better cope with your triggers and manage your symptoms in the long run.

If you’re interested in learning more about PTSD, consider checking out these resources:

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Avoidance is one of the most common features of PTSD. It can significantly affect your quality of life with the condition.

Although avoiding your triggers can seem like it’s keeping you safe, it’s likely worsening your anxiety and PTSD symptoms.

If you’ve been experiencing avoidance because of your PTSD, reach out to a doctor or a mental health professional with your concerns. With the right treatment, you can learn to better navigate all of your emotions — even the uncomfortable ones.