EMOTIONAL AVOIDANCE

Life isn’t like a film – we can’t avoid those that we know will make difficult watching leading to angst, tears, upset, fear, concern. We can’t simply keep to the happy ever after ones. It’s a fact of life and living that we have to face up to illnesses, work problems, house moves, relationship break-ups, divorce, death of loved ones and on and on. Along with all of these as well as many day to day events that bring those negative emotions flooding on in.

THOSE UPS AND DOWNS OF LIFE

We cannot avoid them, those ups and downs of life unless we live in a bubble which allows in the positive, and the ok bits but protects us from the emotional lows. Maybe our bubble is even set up to keep out those ‘yahoo’ moments which result in belly laughs, guffaws and sheer unadulterated joy and happiness. In fact, those ups and downs of living mimic the ups and downs of our heart beats on a monitor. As for the flat line, which would mean that life was same-same, boring but safe, well that monitor flat line shows death.

I always find that a thought provoking idea. Yes, there are occasions when I am considered, and consider myself to be risk averse. However, for the rest – lets go for that emotional challenge, that learning challenge, that (not TOO risky) physical challenge. Guess that the peaks of my living would then become like the Alps instead of the rather comfortable rolling downland which they are at present.

Diane, in her guest blog a couple of weeks ago encouraged us to face up to one of those emotional settings that we will often try to ignore, even though we know that it is, sooner or later, inevitable. Our death and the process leading up to the actual happening, our dying, especially if this involves a lengthy terminal illness. However, no matter what our age, our state of health, it is just as important to have those conversations.

Having made the decision, the longer that we add in excuses, delays for any of the planning or talking, the more difficult it becomes. Guess it’s not helped by those comments from family or friends that include – but you are healthy, you are far too young to be talking of dying; or, indeed, their personal aversions to taking part in such conversations no matter what their reasons. Sadly, we don’t know what may be around those corners on our road, either literally or metaphorically, so bullets need to be bitten and plans drawn up. Plans which can and will evolve and adapt over the coming (hopefully plentiful) years.

THE NEGATIVES OF EMOTIONAL AVOIDANCE

According to research by David Barlow, Steven Hayes et al, one of the major factors leading to psychological problems is the avoidance of emotions. On the face of it, carrying out what seems to be a good idea. I am well aware that if I am in the process of facing up to something I know will cause angst, upset, if I step out and away from these thoughts, I feel relief. Recently, I knew that I had to confront a situation which was causing me upset. I chose to avoid that confrontation and felt relieved. However, the situation didn’t miraculously sort itself, rather when I decided to stop avoiding it, it had become a bigger problem – both in reality as well as in my mind. My short-term gain had produced longer-term pain.

For many, emotionally avoiding working with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can lead to other unhealthy ways of coping being employed such as turning to alcohol, drugs or dissociating from the traumatic event/s. The emotional avoidance and unhealthy ways of coping become problems in themselves. Taking that first physical and emotional step towards healing through seeking support has become even more difficult.

Sadly, the more that you avoid, the more this becomes your default setting, your excuse to avoid settings and situations which you see as not being positive. You close down on so many of life’s experiences which lead to emotional, spiritual, physical development. Without facing up to your problem, you can begin to spin your attitude against more situations, making the cardinal error of listening to your own rather skewed version of what is actually true. That pile of negative emotions accumulates somewhere inside, probably rising to give you a prod in the ribs or a bite on the backside from time to time. They give you emotional hiccups and physical problems. They are like your personal gremlins that refuse to leave you in peace, with their avoidance adding to your levels of angst and worry.

Catastrophising of events happens. Your imagination takes over, runs wild. We cannot always avoid all of the situations, events, people that we would choose to. Therefore, if we have to face up to the happening, our levels of concern, worry, fear will build in the run up to it. In the cold light of reality, the event may be mildly concerning but in our minds it has become an ever nearing catastrophe. On honest reflection following the event, it will probably be deemed not as bad as expected – that catastophising being responsible for the lead up proving to be the worst part.

JUST WHAT ARE THESE THINGS WE CALL EMOTIONS?

So what are emotions? A word that we probably take for granted though would find hard to define should an alien ask the question of us. Sorry – was back in the classroom there; using a strategy to encourage children to consider just what the word they had used meant. I used to have great fun playing that unknowing alien! The number of emotions suggested range from 4 to 10, according to your point of reference. They include happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. They are felt to be strong feelings derived from our circumstances, mood or relationships with others: instinctive and intuitive rather than being based on knowledge or reasoning. Not easy to affix a simple definition to the contents of such a melting pot. This is why Wikidedia comes up with - 

‘Emotion is a mental state associated with the nervous system brought on by chemical changes variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioural responses, and a degree of pleasure or displeasure. There is currently no scientific consensus on a definition.’ So, that put me in my place for trying to find one.

The issue is further complicated as emotion and mood can be used synonymously. However, psychologists tell us that an emotion is (usually) short-lived but can be intense, whilst moods are not so intense but longer-lasting, often with no obvious reason for their beginning.

How one person would describe being happy can be radically different from another’s description. Add to this, what makes different people angry, sad, happy, fearful is a very variable feast – and can depend on the mood that is around at the time. If you are in a low mood, chances are it is going to take a lot more to make you feel happy than if you are in a good mood. What makes one person fizz with anger is likely to only mildly upset another. Emotions don’t always occur in isolation – if you are doing something for the first time, you may be anxious and excited at the same time. I know that when I come across abuse, I feel anger and disgust directed towards the perpetrator yet simultaneously I feel sadness for the person who has been abused. So a mish-mash of powerful emotions.

There are three recognised elements to emotions – a subjective experience, a physiological response and a behavioural response. Differences of culture and personality can affect these elements.

For example the experience of meeting someone on a first date – you may have the physiological response of blushing, of your heart racing – your behavioural response could be to smile and begin to chat to this new person.  

So, it seems that in consideration of that one word – emotion – we are leaning on a rather large open door.

FROM EMOTIONAL AVOIDANCE TO EMOTIONAL ACCEPTANCE

In addition to individual variations that I previously mentioned, we need to acknowledge that how we handle emotions is highly influenced by how those around us handle theirs, especially when we were young. Our values, our experiences, our understanding of situations, our goals and aims in life all enter into how we behave and respond to individual situations.

Then again, we have that word of which I often make mention – choices. Using all of the information to hand, with or without realising that we are doing this, choices are then made. Our choices of how to handle our emotions and which actions to take.

As a human being, we are affected by emotions on a daily basis. Avoidance of emotions which we do not choose to face cuts down on experiences as a unique human individual. Acceptance is a far more healthy and long-term option.

I am aiming to walk each day. It is raining quite hard at present. Earlier in the day, the weather was better, but I had other, indoor things that I prioritised, including writing this. The rain makes me feel miserable as the sky is heavy and grey. So, into self-talk…the garden is appreciating the rain and I won’t need to water the containers this evening. The writing is progressing and the walk allows for thinking. So on with the positivity and on with the wellies, the waterproof jacket and out with the big umbrella. What was that old saying – there is no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes. Onwards and upwards with the walk …

Am back – very little water actually wet me and I enjoyed letting my inner child splash in some puddles. And you know what half way around my circuit, the rain stopped and a watery sun appeared. Instead of going with the negativity and hunkering down inside, which would have led to feelings of guilt later on, I did it and feel good that I made that choice. I went out expecting to return home wet and miserable – I had catastrophised and was proved wrong. I returned home refreshed in mind and body. I can now complete my blog rather than battling to get the mind to focus whilst batting off my negativity about the rain and my walk.

OK, my situation here was not a hugely negative one, though it had become a big thing for me; but by using such situations, we are changing our mind set, our negative default, for when it comes to ‘bigger’ situations. Avoiding something doesn’t teach us how to accept emotions – small or large, positive or negative. By doing something, we learn, by avoiding doing something, we don’t.

OK, not all negative emotions will be as easily turned around. As I set off, I kept assuring myself it was ok – and you know what, it turned out to be more than ok, even fun. Not all negative emotions will be considered fun, but experiencing them will make those positive ones even more positive and so much better than shutting them away and adding to that ‘to be avoided pile’ which wastes a lot of energy when we try to keep it buried.

I have now overcome my block around going out in the rain – just for a walk, rather than with an errand to carry out. If the weather continues as is tomorrow, then I will simply don the wet weather gear and off I go without wasting time with self-excuses.

Just like so many areas of learning, if we take baby steps – be they wet ones or dry ones – we will change our habits, change our way of behaving, change our avoidance of negative emotions. So seek out those easier steps, take them and move on, away from avoiding those negative emotions towards encouraging the equivalent of the profile in the picture instead of the emotional monotony of a flat line. If this is something that you find hard, please do get in touch for either face-face therapy or distance via Skype.

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