What is Avoidant Personality Disorder?

Many teenagers and adults suffer from social anxiety. This is a condition that can make them feel nervous and physically ill when they have to interact with others, particularly if they will be the center of attention (such as when they must give a speech) or when they think others will be looking at them (such as when attending a party). A personality disorder that shares some of the same characteristics as those with social anxiety is called avoidant personality disorder. A personality disorder is not something that can be alleviated with a short-term therapy plan like social anxiety can be. The disorder causes negative effects in all facets of a person’s life, from their education and career to relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. Read on to find out about avoidant personality disorder and what you should do if you suspect that you or a loved one might have the disorder.

What Causes Avoidant Personality Disorder?

The jury is out on whether avoidant personality disorder is affected more by biological or environmental factors. It is likely that both are responsible for the development of the condition. Also, as symptoms emerge, the reactions of others can exacerbate the disorder. For example, people with avoidant personality disorder tend to be tense and awkward around others. For children and teenagers, in particular, this can cause their peers to take note that something is wrong. The person with the disorder might be bullied or mocked. The individual becomes more and more fearful of ridicule, and that affects the progression of the disorder.

At the same time, there could be biological issues at play. As with many mental health conditions, there might be a family history personality disorders or social anxiety that could make one more prone to developing avoidant personality disorder. Teens and adults who develop the disorder were often very shy as children. This does not mean that shy children are going to develop avoidant personality disorder; most shy children go on to maintain good mental health and don’t develop personality disorders at all.

Symptoms of Avoidant Personality Disorder

This disorder shares some of the same characteristics as social anxiety, so it requires a mental health professional for an accurate diagnosis. Still, there are some symptoms that you can be aware of and look for to determine whether you or your teen should see a mental health specialist to get a screening for avoidant personality disorder. Signs and symptoms of avoidant personality disorder include:

  • Excessive worrying about being ridiculed or rejected
  • Avoidance of going to school, work, and social gatherings
  • Does not talk to others because they are afraid of being criticized or unliked
  • Does not interact with those who they might have a romantic interest in because they are very afraid of being declined or mocked
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Obsessive thoughts over whether they have done something that another person will judge them for

Dangers of Avoidant Personality Disorder

There are some dangers of avoidant personality disorder. For teenagers, their social lives and academic successes will be affected. Teens with the disorder might refuse to attend school or might not do their work because they are afraid of getting a bad grade on something they put effort into. They will also often not engage with friends and will miss out on the normal social activities of adolescence. They might wish that they could attend school dances, participate in sports, or develop a circle of close friends, but their personality disorder stops them from putting themselves out there and trying out for the team, dancing in front of others, or trying to strike up a conversation with a peer.

As teenagers grow into adulthood, they might find that their options are greatly limited when it comes to choosing a college. If they were unable to maintain good grades due to a lack of keeping up with schoolwork and attending school, this is a problem. In addition, they might not feel as though they are able to apply to colleges, move into a dormitory, or live with a roommate. Adults often have trouble advancing at work, because many positions require communication and camaraderie with others in the office or with clients or customers. If the disorder develops during early adulthood, which is common, it is likely that the individual will not have honed the coping methods needed to function effectively in the workplace.

Middle-aged adults often find that their symptoms become alleviated as they get older. While this is good in the sense that they are more able to interact appropriately with others, it can cause anxiety and depression due to the missed opportunities of the younger years.

Getting Help for Avoidant Personality Disorder

Your primary care physician or your teenager’s pediatrician or family doctor can screen you or your teen for depression, anxiety, and some other mental health conditions that can mimic avoidant personality. In addition, they can refer you to a mental health professional who will be able to look into the possibility that avoidant personality disorder is causing the troubling symptoms. Because the disorder requires an evaluation of specific criteria, it is important to see a specialist who is well-versed in the intricacies of the condition.

Treatment for avoidant personality disorder centers around long-term psychotherapy. Unfortunately, those with the condition are often reluctant to put themselves in the position where they might be judged by anyone, including a therapist, so they often do not follow through with the long-term treatment plan. Instead, they might wait until the symptoms are severe enough that they must seek short-term counseling to cope. This is not as effective, but it can help people with the disorder develop some coping mechanisms that will allow them to manage their education or maintain a job.

Medications are sometimes used. This is particularly true when the condition is co-occurring with another mental health condition. Since generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression can make the symptoms of avoidant personality disorder worse, it is important to treat those conditions effectively to minimize their effects on the personality disorder. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of these medications, particularly if the patient is your child or teenager.

If you are worried about this condition, the best course of action is to make an appointment with your doctor. They can help rule out or confirm the need to see a mental health care specialist. With good adherence to a treatment plan, those with avoidant personality disorder can go on to live a fulfilling life.

Further Reading