Suffering, however unpleasant and painful it may be, is part of human existence. It is something that, like life and death or love and hate, is present to a greater or lesser extent in each of us.
In case you suffer too much it is logical and totally indicated that everyone looks for methods to reduce this feeling, however, sometimes it happens that the more you try to avoid the pain the more you think about it and, as a side effect, the more you suffer.
This may be a sign that you are suffering from experiential avoidance disorder , a psychological condition in which all attempts to avoid what produces an aversive feeling ironically imply that more thought is given to it. Let’s look in more detail at its characteristics and what therapies are used to treat it.
What is experiential avoidance disorder?
Experiential avoidance disorder is a disorder in which the person avoids or escapes from an aversive experience . Negative sensations, emotions or thoughts are not accepted, focusing all forces on fleeing from them, but not allowing themselves to continue enjoying life because they have not yet managed to eliminate the aversive experiences.
Among people who suffer from it, it is very common to hear phrases like ‘I need to be well in order to do things’, ‘I cannot work well if I am not happy’ or ‘I cannot enjoy exercising while thinking about the bad things’. This is a sign of how the person feels a great discomfort due to his or her rumination and, furthermore, is not able to obtain pleasant sensations because he or she does not allow them to occur or does not go in search of them.
The disorder is verbal in nature, that is, is determined by the verbal disposition of the person to classify that which is seen as good or bad, based on private events, with both physical and verbal characteristics, as well as negative evaluations, responses to events and their life experiences.
Problems related to experiential avoidance can appear when one begins to act rigidly to eliminate or avoid internal experience, being a very present factor in the way a person behaves. This will be done consciously at first, but after a certain time has passed, the person will incorporate this avoidance into his or her repertoire of behaviors, which will become automatic.
Efforts to avoid unpleasant feelings interfere with emotional responses , in addition to endangering aspects considered important and pleasant for the person, such as hobbies, personal relationships, work and so on.
Is avoidance always bad? Characteristics of the disorder
In short, experiential avoidance consists of trying to avoid unpleasant thoughts, sensations and emotions, with the intention of not experiencing them. However, this should not be understood to mean that avoiding something unpleasant is necessarily a psychological disorder. Human beings constantly avoid phenomena that are not pleasant to them, and this is usually a good thing.
Avoiding something that could be harmful is, in fact, an adaptive resource , since you are running away from something that could damage your physical or mental integrity. For example, when we are in the field, if we see a bee hovering near us, it is good to get away from it because, even if it has not shown any intention of attacking us, we do not want it to end up doing so either.
However, avoidance becomes a problem if, in doing so, it entails a great cost for the person , both in terms of his or her state of mind and physical well-being. It is possible that, in order to avoid the unpleasant sensation, behaviours are carried out that are satisfying in the short term, but that in the long term are harmful. This can be summarized in a simple formula: avoidance is a bad thing when the harm to be avoided is greater than the harm to be avoided.
The proposed diagnostic criteria for this disorder are as follows:
- Constant feelings that revolve around feeling bad.
- The mind becomes obsessed with coping with discomfort.
- Great efforts to control negative feelings, emotions and thoughts.
- Rigid belief that you cannot enjoy it without first eliminating all the discomfort.
- Wait until you are well enough to fully develop as a person.
Let us take the case of a person who has just suffered the loss of a loved one . It is normal to go through the grieving phase, which is sad and undesirable, but totally normal after the death of someone you have loved. In this case, the person would be showing behaviours related to experiential avoidance if, instead of accepting the situation or seeking psychological help to overcome the process, he or she consumed alcohol to escape from reality. He or she is at risk of becoming an alcoholic.
The main cause that has been hypothesized to explain this little-known disorder is related to the personality of the sufferer. It has been suggested that the origin of experiential avoidance is psychological inflexibility in dealing with one’s own experienced discomfort, both in trying to escape it and in avoiding it.
Not being able to adapt to the fact that the suffering will be there, and having the rigid idea that in order to enjoy first it is necessary to eliminate all unpleasant sensations , the life of the person life revolves around avoidance.
The individual is closed off from the experience of painful emotions, sensations and thoughts and is not able to continue with his daily tasks or hobbies. Continuing to think about the bad and not looking for good experiences causes him to enter an increasingly harmful loop. If you suffer from depression or anxiety, this is even worse.
Consequences of Experiential Avoidance
As we were saying, if the person who suffers from this disorder also suffers from another negative psychological condition, such as anxiety and depression, the situation can be particularly serious.
Disorders whose symptoms are these psychological problems should be treated professionally . If the person who is suffering from them is carrying out efficient strategies to increase his well-being, this is something positive and totally appropriate. As far as possible, mood and anxiety disorders can be overcome.
However, during the recovery process, the person must be aware that he or she will suffer some degree of discomfort, and must accept this while therapy is underway. Waiting for all the discomfort to go away before starting to do emotionally beneficial behaviors, such as hobbies, is a problem that makes it difficult for therapy to continue, since there are no positive reinforcements that make the person more motivated and overcome his psychological problems.
Not accepting the discomfort of these problems, avoiding them or escaping from them , implies the following situations:
- Try to control the discomfort, which makes you more aware of it and, in turn, increases it.
- Day to day life becomes a constant struggle against that discomfort, taking away importance from reinforcers or pleasant sensations.
These two avoidance behaviours have, in turn, several implications at the social level in the person’s life. The person progressively isolates himself from his circle of friends and even family. One expects to be well enough to go to the movies, to the gym, to resume studies, to go to work… This can stretch over a long period of time, reaching months and years.
Treatment: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
As we have already mentioned, suffering is part of everyone’s life and, although it is always preferable to look for ways to reduce or eliminate the cause of that discomfort, sometimes this option is not possible. There are certain thoughts, sensations and emotions that cannot simply cease to exist and, therefore, looking for ways to make them cease to be felt is something impossible.
The best thing to do in these cases is to accept that you are going to have these experiences, however unpleasant they may be. Focusing on eliminating them can be a huge waste of energy and be given too much attention, making it difficult to move towards a life goal that is pleasant for the person.
The aim of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is to make the person aware that he or she is indeed suffering from a certain discomfort, but that he or she must accept it, not run away from it . There are aspects of life that are not going to disappear and waiting for them to be resolved or running away from them are not good strategies if they are detrimental to the person’s life in general.
Therapists use different strategies to treat the symptoms associated with experiential avoidance disorder , such as Mindfulness, therapeutic metaphors and cognitive de-fusion. In addition, the focus of therapeutic action is also on the restoration of the most important aspects of the person, such as hobbies, work, academic, social and family life.
The aim is to get him to stop fighting against his discomfort and instead focus on carrying out actions that involve true well-being, which will make his life increasingly richer in pleasant experiences and he will come to accept that being bad does not mean not being able to enjoy.
A Final Reflection
In developed societies, especially in the Western world, the philosophy of always being well, of enjoying all activities, both leisure and work, has been promoted. We are not allowed to feel bad, and any negative feeling is seen as a symbol of weakness or as a reason for great concern. Being sad, crying, living unpleasant moments are undoubtedly part of life, but it seems that experiencing them is almost forbidden and those who live them struggle so that no one notices.
Feeling good has become a fundamental aspect in the model of the successful person that has been tried to be imposed both by the media and by more personal environments, such as the family or the school. Being happy is always seen as something that is synonymous with being a fully adapted person, even though this belief is totally wrong.
Euthymia, that is, living all kinds of feelings within limits considered healthy, is an evolutionary mechanism, which allows the survival of the person as well as his adaptation in social terms. There are days when we feel good, and others not so good. On days when we are sad we are like this for some reason that, if we think about it, allows us to learn from our mistakes or based on some situation that we have not liked. We live in the moment, and it allows us to continue living .
If we become obsessed with being perfectly happy, focusing on avoiding negative feelings or thoughts and putting off pleasant experiences that we could be doing right now, isn’t it as if we’re actually sabotaging our own happiness?
- Luoma, J. B., Hayes, S. C., & Walser, R. D. (2007). Learning ACT: An acceptance and commitment therapy skills-training manual for therapists. Oakland, CA, US: New Harbinger Publications.
- Hayes, Steven C.; Spencer Smith (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications