Avoidance is one of the most common strategies for coping with life’s emotional challenges.
From a neurological perspective, avoidance is a quick and cost-effective solution compared to confrontation, which involves a significant amount of emotional and mental resources.
Avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) is characterized by a pattern of social inhibition coupled with feelings of inadequacy and hypersensitivity to criticism and negative feedback.
The onset of this condition occurs during adolescence and early adulthood, with prevalence rates close to 2.5% in the general adult population. Furthermore, some studies indicate that women are more likely to develop avoidant personality than men.
People with AVPD avoid situations or jobs that involve interpersonal contact out of fear of being rejected or criticized. Self-conscious about their personal and professional skills, a person with AVPD needs reassurance before taking on new projects, making a career shift, or getting involved in relationships.
In short, any situation or interaction that involves risks and uncertainty is likely to be avoided.
Since life is generally sprinkled with changes big and small, and change involves discomfort and risk, avoidant personality disorder can be a significant obstacle to personal and professional growth.
What Are the Symptoms?
The key element of this condition is the avoidance which manifests at a cognitive, behavioral, or emotional level, whenever the person is dealing with anxiety, emotional distress, tough choices, or complicated situations.
People with avoidant personality disorder will also:
- Experience persistent and generalized feelings of restlessness and tension.
- Believe they are unwanted, unattractive, socially inadequate, or inferior.
- Find it challenging to navigate professional settings, make friends, or be romantically involved unless they know for sure that others appreciate them.
- Focus intensely on criticism and rejection, especially in social contexts.
- Avoid social or professional activities that involve a significant degree of interpersonal contact, out of fear of rejection and criticism.
- Behave in a reserved manner when faced with new and uncertain situations.
To meet the criteria for AVPD, one must exhibit at least four of the symptoms indicated above.
What Is the Cause?
As with all other personality disorders, AVPD results from a mix of genetic/biological, social, psychological, and environmental factors.
Given that social anxiety (SA) and avoidant personality are relatively similar and share the same risk factors to a certain extent, some experts speculate that the same genes responsible for social anxiety could explain the development of avoidant personality disorder.
If we take a closer look at environmental factors, anything from criticism and bullying to emotional abuse and lack of parental affection could trigger the onset of avoidance strategies, which consequently lead to a personality disorder.
Long story short, researchers have yet to zero in on a specific set of causes for this condition.
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How Can AVPD Be Treated?
In general, people with avoidant personality disorder seek treatment for coexisting conditions like anxiety or depression. That is one of the reasons why AVPD can go unnoticed for years.
It is only after a clinical evaluation that patients become mindful of the underlying condition that is making them feel anxious, especially in social contexts.
Given that personality disorders are characterized by enduring and pervasive patterns of thinking and behavior, treatment is often a long and arduous process that can involve talk therapy, psychiatric medication, and support groups. As a result, a significant number of people with AVPD drop out of therapy as soon as they notice a positive change in symptoms.
Psychotherapy is a process of self-exploration, self-discovery, and personal growth that takes place under the careful guidance of a licensed professional.
Recent studies indicate that cognitive-behavioral and schema therapy show promising results in the treatment of avoidant personality disorder.
While cognitive-behavioral therapy helps the client become aware of their avoidance behaviors and replaces them with healthier coping strategies, schema therapy offers the ideal framework for identifying dysfunctional core beliefs and thinking patterns that fuel avoidance behaviors.
Although researchers and mental health professionals have not come up with a drug designed specifically for avoidant personality disorder, patients with severe forms of AVDP can receive psychiatric treatment for related conditions like anxiety or depression.
Medication can alleviate social anxiety, thus improving the patient’s overall quality of life and increasing the efficiency of psychotherapy. Two of the most frequently used classes of drugs are antidepressants and anxiolytics.
Although psychiatric medication – just like all other forms of drug therapy – may have unpleasant side effects, it remains one of the most effective treatment approaches we have so far.
Managing avoidant personality disorder requires an integrative approach that allows patients to access all the information and support they need to keep anxiety in check and refrain from avoidance strategies.
Fortunately, the digital era offers quick and easy access to support groups where people with AVPD can share their stories, provide comfort, and create a safe environment for newcomers.
It can be quite empowering to interact with people who are going through the same difficulties as you. Such interactions may be the push you need to cultivate positive changes and adopt healthier coping strategies.