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Understanding Experiential Avoidance and its Impact on Mental Health

What is Experiential Avoidance?

The human mind is like a problem-solving machine; when we try and problem solve things in the physical world and that works, it's natural that our minds try and do the same with our inner world of thoughts and feelings; although it usually doesn't work too well.

Experiential avoidance is when people try really hard to stay away from things that make them feel upset or uncomfortable. Instead of facing these feelings and dealing with them, they might do things to distract themselves or ignore what's bothering them.


How Experiential Avoidance Is Harmful to our Mental Health

Experiential avoidance can intensify suffering by creating a vicious cycle of temporary relief followed by prolonged distress. When we consistently avoid confronting uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or situations, we miss out on opportunities to address the root causes of our distress.

A common example of this can be shown through addictions. Lots of times, people start doing things like gambling or using drugs because they want to escape from bad feelings like boredom, loneliness, or sadness. At first, these things might seem to help them feel better for a little while. But in the long run, they usually end up causing a lot more pain and problems.

Anxiety disorders are another example of negative Experiential Avoidance. The more and more time and energy we spend trying to either evade or forget unwanted thoughts, the more likely we our mental health will be negatively affected later. Although anxiety is a normal human emotion that we all experience, a root cause of anxiety disorders comes from excessive experiential avoidance: our lives being consumed by trying to get rid of anxiety.

For example, if I feel anxious about my relationship, I can avoid my significant other. Now, my anxiety is deeper and the lack of communication may make things more shaky. The short term benefit of avoiding them does have some benefit - I get to avoid anxious thoughts and feelings - but long term, I feel more isolated, and find myself stuck in a harmful cycle.

Another way I may respond to this anxiety is to grit my teeth and see them anyway - to tolerate the feelings even though they may cause distress. This is still a form of experiential avoidance, as even though I'm not avoiding the situation, I'm still struggling and hoping the feelings will stop. I'm showing tolerance, not acceptance.

Tolerance and acceptance are very different. Imagine if the people who care about you just put up with you, hoping you'd leave soon and always checking if you're gone. That wouldn't feel good, right? Instead, wouldn't it be better if they fully accepted you, flaws and all, and wanted you around for as long as you wanted to stay?

Unfortunately, the more thought and importance we put into avoiding our anxiety, the more anxiety we feel about our anxiety. This cycle is the core of any anxiety disorder: many panic attacks are about anxiety about anxiety. Pushing these unwanted thoughts to the corners of our minds may cause a rebound effect, which increases both the intensity and amount of unwanted thoughts.


Is Experiential Avoidance all bad?

It is also important to acknowledge the costs and effects of experiential avoidance, which is often a stepping stone to get to experiential acceptance.

However, it's also important to accept that we aren't just supposed to always be in the present moment. In ACT, it's not expected for everyone to be constantly accepting; that isn't reasonable. Experiential avoidance is not an inherently "horrible"; it's normal. The only time we should target it is when it gets in our way of having a mentally well life. This avoidance is what we usually mean is "experiential avoidance" during therapy, which is different then other forms of experiential avoidance. Workable experiential avoidance is flexible; we take aspirin every once in a while to get rid of headaches. It's experiential avoidance, but helps our life in the long run; a good thing.

However, in ACTs there are still some "guidelines"; we can't just accept every thought and feeling we have under all circumstances. ACT believes experiential acceptance is bad under two circumstances:

  • When avoidance of these thoughts and feelings are impossible or limited

  • When avoidance is technically possible, but harmful long term.

If experiential avoidance is helpful and allows you to live your life in a more positive way: go for it. Experiential avoidance isn't all bad, and isn't opposite to your values. Just remember the guidelines, and this seemingly terrible thing may have it's benefits after all.

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