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Experiential Avoidance
15 April 2024

Experiential Avoidance : More Than Anxiety

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Mental, physical and social health are worse than ever for young people. There’s a growing concern, but even with all of the new information and knowledge we have, and normalisation of mental illness, it’s still growing. We’re looking in the wrong place.


Explore the rising issue of Experiential Avoidance among youth, linking it to decreasing mental and physical resilience. It emphasises the need for embracing risk and challenging experiences to foster healthier, more resilient children.

  • Experiential avoidance is worsening mental and physical health among young people.
  • Trends show each generation is progressively less resilient and more illness-prone.
  • Risk-taking is crucial for developing resilience and combating avoidance behaviours.
  • Real-world examples and strategies are provided to help parents apply these concepts.
  • Encourages shifting from comfort-focused parenting to promoting healthy challenges.

Experiential Avoidance : More Than Anxiety

Examine the damaging effects of experiential avoidance and its impact on resilience and health.

  • Experiential avoidance links to low resilience and increased isolation.
  • Avoiding challenges maintains unhealthy patterns of behaviour.
  • Facing experiences enhances mental and physical health, enriching life.

Within the behavioural science world there’s a new collective of behaviours which are getting connected together. There’s been observed a rising trend that people who are suffering from low resilience, mental and physical illness and social isolation participate in “Experiential Avoidance”.

This is being described as not just a generalised anxiety, but instead a process where people use their fears and worries to avoid any changes, maintaining an inertia and pattern of behaviour to avoid experiences.

However experiences and challenge are what shape and define us, increasing our resilience and therefore our mental and physical health. Not just that, but experiences enrich our lives, making it worth living!

What Does Experiential Avoidance Feel Like?

Experiential avoidance contributes to the worsening health across generations.

  • Health declines in each generation since the 1950s, potentially shortening lives.
  • Resilience and healthy choices are key to combating physical and mental illness.
  • Experiential avoidance involves actively avoiding challenging experiences due to fear.

Both physical and mental illness continue to rise, regardless of our better knowledge. Every generation since the 1950s has suffered worse and worse declines, and the modern generations are expected to be some of the first which may have worse health, and shorter lives than their parents.

Our mental and physical health is closely linked to our resilience and our choices. The more we know and more tolerant we are of discomfort and anxieties the more healthy choices we can make. Experiential avoidance is more than just anxiety over making those choices, it’s proactively avoidant.

When a person is participating in Experiential Avoidance, they look to try and keep themselves within a pattern of behaviours to prevent fear and anxiety. To keep it simple, they avoid experiences, because these are challenging!

With families, Experiential Avoidance is likely to emerge at home when trying new things. Particularly extra-curricular activities or new hobbies, where there’s a whole host of new experiences from new people to new rules and new skills. This often leads to either refusal to try, anxiety at the door, or early-quitting behaviour where young people turn to avoidance behaviours within the first stages of learning.

Where Does Experiential Avoidance Come From?

Experiential Avoidance and risk aversion in young people contribute to diminishing resilience.

  • Experiential avoidance is linked to reduced risk-taking and resilience.
  • Avoidance leads to choosing comfort over growth, fostering isolation and anxiety.
  • Technology overuse and less physical activity reinforce avoidance behaviours.

Experiential Avoidance is still a new concept, and there’s a lot of investigation going on. However it’s clear that there’s a link between Experiential Avoidance, and the resilience of taking risks. Taking risks happens in our everyday lives as we challenge ourselves and our way of thinking.

There’s a growing resistance to risk taking with young people, and with our consistent efforts to reduce risk in the name of reducing harm, we’ve become hyper-sensitive to the discomfort of young people. By raising generations of young people with an aversion to risk, we’ve prevented them from having healthy interactions with experiences which are challenging, meaning their resilience to those situations are low or non-existent.

As a result, when they experience trepidation, anxiety, fear or stress at everyday levels, such as having a new experience, they flinch away. Instead they opt to do the things which are comfortable, even if that comfort leaves them feeling isolated or anxious. It’s the devil they know.

This is combined with the compounding effect of technology overuse in homes, and the diminishing physical activity young people are exposed to. They have comfortable, predictable online worlds which reinforce their behaviours and provide an alternative to real challenges.

The Impact of Risk Reduction

Peter And Avoiding Experiences

Peter is a Risky Kid at one of our clubs, participating in one on one sessions. We provide these for a host of reasons, but most commonly it’s for young people who have symptoms of disorders or neurodiversity which render them unable to participate in group sessions. Even in his one on one sessions Peter is highly distracted, and will only do the things he wants to do.

He creates narratives about why he can’t do challenges, why they’re dangerous and when he comes to class he’s often frustrated, distracted and has a short attention span. Peter also has autism, and some of its symptoms can make participation quite challenging for him.

The team talked with Peter’s family about trying to increase how much time he spent outdoors and reducing his screen time, however the family is resistant as his behaviour often escalates if he isn’t allowed to use screens at home consistently.

This is common with families often, but it’s a cycle where the behaviour will become worse before it becomes better, which our team is helping the family try to navigate. Our team has been working with Peter for some time, but when they conducted an incursion to his school they discovered so much more.

Peter’s school would allow him to play video games consistently throughout the day, especially towards the end of the day prior to his classes. When our team asked about this, his teachers said it was the only thing which would calm him down when he got agitated about learning. Peter is stuck in an Experiential Avoidance cycle where he uses screen time to comfort himself, and whenever he’s challenged or has to try something new he acts out until he gets what he wants, reinforcing his behaviour.

The Doom Loop Effect

Experiential Avoidance creates “Doom Loops” in resilience, deepening detrimental behavioural patterns.

  • Experiential avoidance creates self-reinforcing cycles of non-engagement.
  • Avoidance reduces exposure to fear, replacing it with comfort and loneliness.
  • Persistent avoidance patterns can contribute to neurological decline and mental disorders.

Experiential Avoidance is one of the behavioural “Doom Loops” of resilience. This means that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of behaviour which reinforces itself the more it continues. Even if we’re already anxious, lonely or unwell, when we encounter a challenge or a new experience, it triggers avoidance behaviour in us.

When we let this avoidance behaviour play out, especially in young people, it reinforces itself. We reduce those challenging feelings of fear, anxiety, doubt or nerves and in some cases even replace them with “safe” feelings, even if those feelings are just patterns of loneliness or sadness.

This means that not only do we end up with patterns of thinking and behaving which become more and more entrenched, but we also neurologically cement them. There’s growing evidence that dementia disorders can be linked to recurring negative patterns of thinking. By failing to challenge ourselves we only use loops of thinking, small parts of our brain. The rest begins to erode away.

Getting Out Of A Spiral

There’s nothing more important than healthy risk taking. Use “Mindsets” with risk as a tool to foster resilience in young people.

  • Emphasises risk-taking as essential for overcoming experiential avoidance and building resilience.
  • Introduces “Mindsets” to help young people adapt and thrive through challenges.
  • Combining these approaches at home enhances learning and strengthens family bonds.

We’re not kidding, taking risks is the key! Risk taking has all of the outcomes we need to not only combat Experiential Avoidance, but to replace it with real and deep resilience. Risk taking helps us to see things from different angles, to challenge our bodies and our ways of thinking and places us in positions where we need to think and feel differently to overcome those challenges.

At Risky Kids we deploy a whole range of tools to challenge young people, starting with their thinking. We use a tool we call “Mindsets” which you can use at home! Collect together important ways of thinking, acting and values as a family, and give it a catchy name. For example:

  • Rub It And Run: This Risky Kids Mindset discusses how to tell the difference between when we’re really hurt, or where we’ve just experienced a manageable bit of pain that we can work through. It also explores how if we let every bump and scrape stop us, we’ll miss out on so many big adventures!
  • Practice Makes Possible: There is no perfect, even when you’re a master. Practice isn’t just the way that we learn new things, it’s how we hold onto our skills. If we don’t practise our skills (Moves OR Mindsets) then they’ll start to fade, no matter how good we got!
  • Act Don’t Act Out: We discuss with young people how negative feelings can be powerful, like frustration and anger. We discuss how when we have those emotions that we can channel it into something productive, or we can let it make a situation worse. We teach young people how to harness and understand those feelings.

Combine home Mindsets like this with risk taking, outdoor and challenging experiences as a family. The adventures you have become the places to discuss and deploy these Mindsets and strengthen them.

Taking Risks, Being Brave

Breaking the Cycle with Peter

During the incursion Peter was excited to see his Coaches and team, and participated in the incursion. While that was a great outcome, what was even better was that after school he had his regular session. After spending half the day at school doing the Risky Kids incursion, his regular one on one session was the best it’s ever been.

With a single session of physical activity during the day instead of being on screens, he was able to focus and challenge himself so much more, breaking the cycle. This was only a single session though, and Peter’s Experiential Avoidance is deeply set. It can also be difficult to untangle it from the symptoms of his neurodiversity.

The team is working with Peter’s family and school on this though, because in no situation will Peter’s outcomes be improved by letting him continue to avoid challenging experiences. It will create a downward spiral that means his resilience thresholds make participating in everyday life impossible.

The team make regular use of Mindsets and risk taking in the program, which is passed on to the families to use at home.


Experiential Avoidance is a growing problem, emerging from the risk-averse nature of our communities, the increasing screen time and indoor recreation and of course because of experiential avoidance itself.

As generations of young people grow up with this pattern, they’re going to raise kids of their own and see this as the new normal. We must intervene and turn toward healthy, facilitated risk taking. Challenge young people and don’t give in to comfort because it’s easy!The long term impacts are less healthy young people and adults who need more and more support. Firstly that makes parenting that much harder, but it also means people who will struggle to contribute to a better world for themselves and for others.

Richard Williams

Richard Williams

Risky Kids Founder, Director of Programming

Richard Williams is a fitness industry consultant, gym owner, business coach and professional stunt actor with more than a decade of experience in the health and fitness industry. With an education in psychology and criminology, Richard blended life experience as a fitness industry consultant with Spartan Race, gym owner, elite-obstacle racer, ultra-runner and professional stunt actor to create the Risky Kids program.

Richard has a passion for enacting meaningful social change through all avenues of health and wellbeing and believes that obstacles are the way. Some of Richard’s key achievements include:

  • Key consultant/coordinator Spartan Race/Tough Mudder/Extreme Endurance
  • OCR World Championship Finalist –  Team & Solo (2015)
  • OCR World Championship Silver Medallist – Team Endurance (2018)
  • Professional film and television stunt performer for 15 years

Considered one of Australia’s foremost experts in the fields of fitness, wellbeing and behavioural science, Richard is frequently in demand as a guest speaker for relevant government and non-
government bodies and organisations. Speaking engagements centred on the success of the Risky Kids program, philosophy and approach have included:

  • Expert speaker/panellist Sports & Camp; Recreation Victoria and Outdoors Victoria forums
  • Closing expert speaker at the Australian Camps Association National Conference
  • Expert speaker at the National Fitness Expo, FILEX