How Avoiding Emotions Effects Mental Wellbeing

What is Experiential Avoidance Behaviour?

Experiential avoidance is defined as when a person tries to escape the feelings of distress they experience through emotions, memories, thoughts, and physical sensations. The individual becomes resistant to staying with their feelings of discomfort and distress and will try to avoid their feelings of anxiety in an attempt to regulate their emotions. This type of avoidance is rooted in the belief that certain emotions and experiences are unacceptable or unbearable. This belief can lead to a constant struggle against unpleasant thoughts and feelings, creating a cycle of avoidance that can be difficult to break. The more a person tries to avoid these experiences, the more they persist and the more anxiety and stress they experience.

People who experience chronic avoidance behaviours, extreme social avoidance and high sensitivity towards negative personal judgment may be diagnosed with an avoidant personality disorder. However, it is also a symptom of other disorders, such as PTSD, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Experiential avoidance can also manifest in extreme forms, such as unhealthy coping behaviours like substance abuse, addictions to gambling and gaming, risky sexual behaviour, and avoiding environments, people, places, and things that may trigger anxiety.

How does Experiential Avoidance Impact Mental Well-Being?

One of the key ways experiential avoidance can impact mental health is by increasing feelings of shame and self-criticism. When a person tries to suppress or avoid their emotions, they may view them as a personal failing or weakness, leading to feelings of shame and self-doubt. This can erode their self-esteem and lead to further anxiety and depression.

The shame and self-criticism that arise from experiential avoidance can also lead to disconnection and isolation. When people feel ashamed of their thoughts and feelings, they may be less likely to share them with others, even those closest to them. This can make them feel isolated and alone, further compounding their mental health problems.

Experiential avoidance can also interfere with a person’s ability to process and learn from difficult experiences. When they avoid or suppress their emotions, they miss out on the opportunity to process and learn from these experiences. This can make it harder for them to grow and develop as individuals and prevent them from making positive life changes.

Finally, experiential avoidance can also lead to several physical health problems, as the constant stress and anxiety associated with it can take a toll on the body. Chronic stress has been linked to a wide range of physical health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and immune system dysfunction.

Ways to Overcome Experiential Avoidance

Overcoming experiential avoidance involves developing new coping mechanisms and ways of dealing with difficult emotions, thoughts, and sensations. Here are a few strategies that can help:

  1. Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing can help increase awareness of and acceptance of our thoughts and emotions. This can help reduce avoidance behaviours and increase our ability to tolerate and deal with difficult experiences.
  2. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT can help individuals identify and change unhelpful thought patterns that drive experiential avoidance. CBT can also teach new coping skills and techniques for managing distressing emotions and thoughts.
  3. Exposure therapy: For individuals struggling with specific phobias or panic disorders, exposure therapy can help desensitize them to their triggers. Gradual exposure to the feared stimulus can help them learn to manage their distress and reduce their avoidance behaviours.
  4. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT is a form of therapy that emphasizes acceptance of difficult thoughts and feelings, rather than avoidance. ACT helps individuals clarify their values and goals and find ways to live a meaningful life despite their struggles with experiential avoidance.
  5. Self-compassion: Cultivating self-compassion can help reduce feelings of shame and self-criticism associated with experiential avoidance. Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and support rather than judgment and criticism.

It is important to remember that overcoming experiential avoidance takes time and effort. However, with the right support and a commitment to change, it is possible to overcome this pattern of behaviour and improve mental health. It may be helpful to seek out the guidance of a mental health professional for personalised support and guidance in overcoming experiential avoidance.

This blog has been written by our Psychosocial Support Worker Michelle Pierre 


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