Hi Everyone! Hope you all had a great Mother’s Day, and that you’re week has started off well. Recently, I got to have coffee with a good friend of mine who I haven’t seen in a long time. We chatted for a few hours like we always do, and eventually we came around to the topic of avoidance. He shared with me how he has worked with feelings of avoidance in his own life, and how helpful it has been for him. I was inspired to say a few things about it here, and I hope it’s helpful.
So, just like every other human emotion or feeling, avoidance has a purpose in our life. It keeps us safe. If we think about our caveman ancestors for a minute, when Glog the Spear Thrower wandered into a dark cave and got eaten by a saber-tooth tiger the rest of his clan would avoid that cave, and didn’t die. Any time we avoid a stimulus that makes us afraid, and we don’t die, our brain says “Good job on the not dying. You should do that thing you did again.” The action is the avoiding. The reinforcer is the not dying. And the thing is, every time we feel uncomfortable, avoid and don’t die our fear gets stronger. Why? Because our brain wants us to keep avoiding and not dying.
This phenomenon is really good for us sometimes. Think of a child. He touches a hot stove. It burns him. He learns not to touch hot stoves. When he sees a hot stove he might feel some fear. He avoids touching the hot stove. He doesn’t get hurt. Overtime his avoidance of touching hot stoves becomes pretty strong. He’s safer for it. Good job brain!
But in our complex modern life sometimes this mechanism can go haywire. What if the child becomes afraid of stoves. And refuses to go anywhere near one? And breaks out into a cold sweat if he sees one? And has panic attacks at the thought of cooking on one? This kid is doomed to a macrobiotic raw diet for the rest of his life, whether he likes it or not. Bless his heart. No steaks. No scrambled eggs. No fried chicken. And paralyzing terror of stoves. This is the other extreme of avoidance, and it’s called a phobia. In this example, there was an initial stimulus that eventually turned into a phobia. Sometimes there isn’t an initial stimulus, or the initial stimulus was disturbing, and the continued avoidance makes it stronger. Read clown phobias. Clowns are scary for some people! And it’s not generally because they were terrorized by a clown. But they get a little freaked out and the feeling grows and grows. So avoidance creates a rebound effect further promotes more avoidance. And fear, anxiety, panic, and terror are the mechanisms our brains use to ensure continued avoidance. Now we will see a gratuitous creepy clown picture.
Sorry if that freaked you out friends. Take a deep breath. You're safe. Let's move on.
But on the spectrum on healthy avoidance and full on phobia there exists another type of avoidance that can be really destructive in our lives. It’s when we avoid situations or feelings in our life that make us uncomfortable to the extent that our level of functioning deteriorates without being a full-blown phobia. This gets especially interesting when we talk about emotional avoidance. This has to do with avoiding physical situations to avoid feeling a certain way, or trying to avoid thoughts for the same reason. Why is this such a big deal? Because pretty soon our world starts to get smaller and smaller.
So let’s say that feel anxious about my college exams. I don’t like feeling anxious. So I do everything I can to avoid this feeling. Some of these things might be productive like studying. My brain learns that studying leads to less anxiety. Good job brain! But what if I drink to avoid this feeling? What if refuse to look at my textbooks to avoid this anxiety? What if I have all sorts of negative thoughts about my ability to do well, and I hate that, so I numb those feelings with relationships, drugs, or other not so great coping skills? Well, I get temporary relief, but when the anxiety comes back it’s stronger and even harder to cope with. Fear of rejection can lead to isolation. Self-doubt or fear of embarrassment can lead to not attempting new things. And each time we avoid our feelings instead of confronting them, the feelings get stronger and stronger.
This is where my blog’s tag line comes in: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you can gain acceptance of the way you feel, and learn to tolerate discomfort, you can break the cycle of destructive avoidance that might be holding you back. There are some specific techniques for doing this. For instance, you might try simply reminding yourself that all feelings change eventually. Give it time. Don’t make big decisions when you’re head is spinning. Let your feelings of anxiety dissipate. You might try mindfulness exercises to gain some perspective on just how busy your brain is, and how much of your inner monologue is not that helpful. You might try exercise, or a hobby, or any number of things.
You might also try talking with a trained counselor who can help you better cope with situations that are difficult. I recommend a therapist that works with something called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or A.C.T. generally said as one word, ACT. If you’d like to read more about ACT or find a therapist in your area that specializes in working in this way you can check out The Association for Contextual Behavioral Sciences (ACBS), or the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.
If you’re a therapist who would like to learn more about how to work with clients in this way I would recommend the ACBS and ACT Made Simple, also by Russ Harris.
And as always, if you begin to feel hopeless or unsafe, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or report to the nearest Emergency Room.
The last thing I want to say about avoidance is that we all do it. We decide to take a day and zone out at the spa, or eat ice cream on the couch, or cry ourselves to sleep, or have a glass of wine. The big questions isn’t whether or not you avoid things. The big question is whether or not avoidance is causing you problems in your life. Is it keeping you from doing what you want to do based on your values? Are important relationships suffering? Remember, if it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem. But if it is a problem, stop avoiding it! Ha! See what I did there?
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