Is This Head In the Sand Disorder?

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Reader’s Question

Is there a mental disorder that resembles anything close to a “Head In the Sand” condition? For about the last 10 years, something like that has been going on with me. I seem to avoid almost everything. I can’t seem to handle any kind of conflict. I’m afraid to get my own mail, won’t look in my bank account, and won’t answer the phone or the door. I also don’t call anyone on the phone.

Most of my problems involve my personal life. At work, I use the phone, pay invoices and keep up with normal business practices. So, I’m more than curious about why I choose to avoid everything in my personal life until it snowballs out of control.

Psychologist’s Reply

Most of the time, the urge to avoid potentially unpleasant circumstances and to procrastinate about getting important things done has its roots in anxiety. Studies show that people will engage in “task avoidance” if they fear initiating the task, fear potentially inadequate completion of the task, or fear encountering some stressful reality co-occurring with the task. Such anxiety-based avoidance is also sometimes accompanied by “avoidant” personality characteristics. Avoidant personalities tend to avoid social interactions and encounters unless they have some reasonably strong guarantees of acceptance and approval.

Folks who tend to avoid anxiety-evoking situations often have the capacity to function without distress or symptoms when they are in familiar situations in which they feel safe, competent, and in control. This might explain why you do not experience the same problems at work that seem to plague your personal life.

Recent research has demonstrated that there is a sort of “disconnect” in the brains of task-avoiders that interferes with the the normal communications between areas of the brain involved in “volitional” or will-directed behavior and areas of the brain involved in task-minding and impulse control. Psychological factors that can affect a person’s tendency to avoid include perfectionism, a tendency to over-reach, and poor self-esteem. Task-avoidance patterns can also accompany or be precipitated or exacerbated by various levels of depression and/or attentional deficiency.

There are both medical and psychotherapeutic tools available these days to help individuals who struggle with task-avoidance. Various medicines and combinations of medicines can help increase attentional focus, increase task-persistence, and decrease the anxiety commonly associated with performing dreaded tasks. Cognitive-behavioral strategies are used to address the distorted thinking that often accompanies avoidance behavior as well as the excessive tendency to escape stress-producing situations.

Although there is no formal clinical term for what you so aptly describe as a sort of “head in the sand” syndrome, a mental health professional should be able to assess your avoidance issues and formulate a plan for helping you overcome them.

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