Avoiding avoidance

There’s been a lot of things that I’ve been getting a bit worked up about lately. Sometimes a bit frustrated with. Sometimes even maybe angry about. Things like natural disasters. And inconsiderate human beings. And climate change. And that Neil Young is no longer coming to this year’s Blues Fest. And the sustainability of my projects at work. And international politics.

And I’m observing how others react to things that piss them off too. What I’m noticing is that a lot of us seem to react to discomfort and unpleasant situations with statements like “I can’t stand it” or “That’s intolerable” or “I just can’t be around it”.

Sometimes when I’m getting a bit uncomfortable or worked up about these things, some people like to offer me advice. Bless them. And what’s interesting is that their advice, or what they claim to do that helps, is all based around the same thing. Avoidance.

I love avoidance. Particularly if it involves a pillow and a nap. Avoidance was one of my main survival techniques for quite some time. But in all of these situations it is not the trigger – whether it be a politician slurring racist comments or a person at work chewing their food way too loudly – that is the cause of our discomfort. It’s the feelings associated with it.

And when it comes to avoiding feelings of discomfort, that’s something I’m trying to avoid now.

We are really not meant to feel happy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, any more than we can feel any one emotion for every minute of your entire life. And if we do feel too much of just one emotion for too long it generally impacts on our ability to function, becoming a mental illness. To be a functional human is to feel a broad spectrum of emotions. This broad spectrum of feelings is in fact what has kept us safe and helped to perpetuate the human race for all this time.

Pain and unpleasantness are an important part of this human experience, yet it seems that we’re becoming conditioned to lean towards more positive emotions and away from these feelings, accepting them as somewhat unnatural. But is there anything really all that unnatural about sadness? Frustration? Anger? Restlessness? Boredom? Irritability? Anxiety? Shyness?

We all have a natural survival instinct embedded within us that creates our aversive reaction to unpleasant or uncomfortable events. This hard-wired instinct tells us to avoid things that are unpleasant, because they are likely to be dangerous or harmful (e.g., a man running at you with a weapon or an oncoming car). However, this same instinct can affect our internal processes as well, disconnecting the self from thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations

According to recent psychological research one of the main causes of many psychological problems is the habit of emotional avoidance.

On numerous occasions of late when discussing international politics, several of my friends and acquaintances have responded with “I’ve stopped watching or reading anything to do with international politics because I can’t handle it.” But I wonder whether this really helps them to reduce their feelings of discomfort.

In a 2009 study, at the Queensland University of Technology, Kavanagh and colleagues asked people in treatment for alcohol abuse and dependence to complete a questionnaire that assessed their drinking-related urges and cravings, as well as any attempts to suppress thoughts and triggers related to booze over the previous 24 hours. They found that those who often fought against intrusive alcohol-related thoughts and triggers actually harboured more cravings. Similar findings from a 2010 study suggested that pushing back uncomfortable emotions could spawn more emotional overeating than simply recognising that we were feeling something unpleasant, whether it be upset, agitated or angry.

Attempts at avoiding uncomfortable emotions are usually futile. Telling ourselves that a certain emotion is intolerable or dangerous can trap us into a state of constant vigilance regarding the very thing we are trying to avoid. We might become hyper-vigilant about any possibility of this feeling arising. And this fear of the impending negative experience becomes a negative experience in itself.

What often happens here though is while we feel we are minimising the pain with these techniques and avoidance behaviours, we are often amplifying them. The other concern is that avoidance and distraction techniques can escalate. We might distract ourselves with a seemingly innocuous glass of wine following a tough day at work, to overeating to mask feelings of loneliness, or even to severe cases of self-harm. In the short term, avoiding the news or drinking half a bottle of wine may feel soothing. But in the long run, it may only spike stress. We might experience guilt if we then try and stop the avoidance behaviour, or our inability to remain calm whilst discussing politics at a friendly dinner party might cause some relationship strain.

In other words, when we fight against emotional pain - when we judge it, try and push it away, avoid it, or ignore it - it can trigger off other painful emotions, resulting in more emotional pain. However the biggest loss is that if we keep distancing ourselves from our negative emotions we can limit our effectiveness and potential to cope with life. And that includes both the opportunities and challenges.

What might happen though if we choose to accept our emotions? To sit with our discomfort and experience the pain for what it is? I can answer this!

Firstly, we can use our emotions as the wonderful sources of information that they are. Our feelings are there to tell us things about what is going on with us and around us. They’re not the only source of information available though. We also have our rational thoughts, our knowledge and experience, our values and goals. We can evaluate our emotions in light of all these other sources to help us decide how to act in certain situations.

As humans we are going to have all kinds of feelings. Like we’re going to have to have to endure all types of weather. These emotions are, more than anything else, just a part of being a real life human. By accepting our emotional life, we are affirming our full humanity. Emotional acceptance, whilst probably a bit more difficult, is usually a far better strategy than avoidance.

Second, when we accept the emotion, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn about it, become familiar with it, become skilled at managing it, and integrate it into our lives. We don’t ever learn this with avoidance.

Most importantly we can find out that when we accept an emotion, it tends to lose its destructive power. It can hurt. And be unpleasant. And uncomfortable. But naturally all emotions will pass if you accept them.

Some will just pass faster than others.

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