Exploring Avoidance: When Does Avoiding Emotions Actually Perpetuate Suffering?
As human beings, we are conditioned to resist discomfort. In many ways, this is adaptive and helps keep us protected. This becomes problematic when we avoid experiencing uncomfortable emotions that are signaling to us important information about ourselves and our needs. Emotions themselves are not dangerous. In fact, many of the ways we go about attempting to avoid uncomfortable emotions are actually what perpetuates our long-term suffering.
Avoiding emotions does not make them disappear. What many do not realize is that avoiding emotions makes them grow and often more difficult to face. For example, say a student feels extreme anxiety about an upcoming test for their program. In response to this anxiety, they choose to procrastinate with the hope of putting off feeling anxious as long as possible. While this may ease some discomfort in the short term, the reality is that the longer the student avoids the anxiety around studying the more anxiety-provoking and daunting it will become once they decide to do it.
An important function of anxiety is to signal to us when we need to plan or prepare. In the example mentioned above, the person procrastinating to avoid anxiety is robbed of acknowledging that this emotion signals to them that they need to prepare in order to do well on this test. Studying and preparing may mean having to feel the anxiety intensely in the short term, but it also will likely yield a better result on the exam. More importantly, it will teach this student that they are capable of managing anxiety and equipped to do so when the next test arises.
In the activity below, you will learn more about the different types of avoidance. Consider some of the ways that you may be avoiding emotions and unintentionally perpetuating your suffering. Once you gain more insight into these strategies, you can start to develop more helpful ways of approaching your emotions. Try writing out your own examples for each of these strategies sot hat you can feel more prepared in the future.
Behavioral Avoidance (overt and subtle)- Actions, or the lack thereof, that we take to reduce or prevent the distress of situations. Overt avoidance tends to look more obvious or extreme (i.e. not going to the social event we are anxious about). Subtle avoidances are the less noticeable (i.e. going to the party but hiding behind a friend or our phone).
Cognitive Avoidance- Mental strategies utilized to prevent and reduce unwanted thoughts and distressing emotions (i.e. distracting ourselves by being on our phone the whole time while at a social event).
Safety Signals- Any thing or item that we rely on to cope and provide us with a sense of calm. These things prevent us from having to fully experience the distress of situations and emotions (i.e. the phone or the person we hide behind at the social event).
When we avoid our emotions, it keeps us from understanding that if we stay present with them, they will peak and pass on their own. Actually experiencing emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones, will build a tolerance to them and help us feel more capable of dealing with them in the future. This article aimed to create awareness around how you go about avoiding discomfort in ways that may no longer be serving you. Awareness is the key to change. By recognizing our own avoidance strategies that do not serve us, we gain the power to change them.