How do you respond to thoughts, feelings, people, memories, and situations that upset you or make you uncomfortable?
Do you face them head-on and deal with them appropriately, or do you avoid them or try to shut them out of your mind?
Sometimes when a stressor feels like too much for a person to deal with, they turn to a mechanism called “experiential avoidance” to cope.
While we are all susceptible to this at times, it can escalate in people with anxiety disorders.
Because excessive worry is distressing, many anxiety sufferers become worried about their worrying, so they try to go to the other extreme, and push all upsetting ideas out of their mind.
But this is not a helpful strategy, because real concerns and issues do need to be faced, and “fearing fear itself” does not improve the situation.
Problems aren’t going to go away because you deny they exist.
The Career Psychologist explains why this behavior is detrimental:
This is a problem because negative thoughts and emotions apply particularly in areas we care most about. Therefore, if we try to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions we risk having to avoid the things we care most about. Ironically, the harder we try to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions, the more powerful they become. So avoiding anxiety tends to make anxiety more important, not less.
It is human nature to move toward pleasure and away from pain. Negative thoughts and emotions are unpleasant, so we often do things to avoid them.
Avoidance can interfere with our lives in many ways. Here are some examples:
- Putting off an important task because of the discomfort it evokes.
- Not taking advantage of an important opportunity due to attempts to avoid worries of failure or disappointment.
- Not engaging in physical activity/exercise, meaningful hobbies, or other recreational activities due to the effort they demand.
- Avoiding social gatherings or interactions with others because of the anxiety and negative thoughts they evoke.
- Not being a full participant in social gatherings due to attempts to regulate anxiety relating to how others are perceiving you.
- Being unable to fully engage in meaningful conversations with others because one is scanning for signs of danger in the environment (attempting to avoid feeling “unsafe”).
- Inability to “connect” and sustain a close relationship because of attempts to avoid feelings of vulnerability.
- Staying in a “bad” relationship to try to avoid discomfort, guilt, and potential feelings of loneliness a break-up might entail.
- Losing a marriage or contact with children due to an unwillingness to experience uncomfortable feelings (e.g., achieved through drug or alcohol abuse) or symptoms of withdrawal.
- Not attending an important graduation, wedding, funeral, or other family event to try to avoid anxiety or symptoms of panic.
- Engaging in self-destructive behaviors in an attempt to avoid feelings of boredom, emptiness, worthlessness.
- Not functioning or taking care of basic responsibilities (e.g., personal hygiene, waking up, showing up to work, shopping for food) because of the effort they demand and/or distress they evoke.
- Spending so much time attempting to avoid discomfort that one has little time for anyone or anything else in life.
Experiential avoidance carries another danger, according to Dr. Larry Berkelhammer:
“…it telegraphs and repeatedly reinforces the message that our feelings don’t matter—and that we should be ashamed of them. This kind of self-denial is the underlying cause of much of the current epidemic of depression in the industrialized world.
Feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, and grief—the emotions we are most likely to try to avoid—are normal and healthy; we cannot function very well when we are out of touch with them. Our inner world informs us of our needs and wants, and it is through our inner experience that we interact with our environment. If we tamp that experience down, we cannot live fully, nor can we grow. The tragedy of experiential avoidance is that when we deny our inner life we deny our aliveness—and even our very existence.”
To help you examine how you react to certain kinds of thoughts, you can take this free self-assessment: Cognitive Avoidance Questionnaire
As with most challenges, the first step to tackling them is awareness. Writing down your worries, discussing them with someone who cares, or seeing a professional therapist can help.
Setting aside a specific “Worry Time” every day, for which you save all your worries, is a technique suggested by Integrative CBT. During the specified Worry Time, worry as hard as you possibly can – this can help you change your relationship with worry as a habit.