What are the costs of avoiding emotions?

How do emotional problems arise?

We each learn to deal with stress in life using a range of coping strategies which are designed to help reduce pain. Some coping strategies work better than others, and some cause long-term negative impact on our well-being. 

How do you think you cope with the stress of life?

Think back to when you have been in a very stressful situation or time in your life, what is your way of dealing with the stress of difficult emotions?

Seven unhelpful coping strategies

  1. Experiential avoidance
  • People automatically try to avoid painful emotions and thoughts.
  • They may feel something uncomfortable, try to suppress it, numb it or push it away.
  • Unfortunately avoidance not only fails to suppress painful feelings, it can also make the pain much worse.

2. Rumination

  • People use repetitive thoughts to curb the fear of uncertainty, and utilise judgements in the hope of forcing themselves or others to do better or be better.
  • Rumination tries to prepare people for all the bad things that may happen.
  • This typically does not work as rumination and obsessional thinking keeps people focused on what is bothering them and intensifies emotions and moods. 

3, Emotional masking

  • Emotional masking means hiding your pain from others. 
  • This is typically driven by a fear of being judged negatively if others saw your emotions.
  • The problem is that the real person remains invisible, helpless and often unfulfilled in relationships.
  • People are not aware of the hurt that the individual may be feeling and therefore may not be adequate support systems. 

4. Short-term focus

  • The focus on what can give them immediate relief in the moment when experiencing painful situations or emotions.
  • While short term relief may provide a brief moment of diminished pain, it often comes back relatively quickly and is sometimes worse. 
  • Short term strategies are often problematic, maladaptive, and harm people in the long term.

5. Response persistence

  • This is when one continues to respond to similar situations in the same way, even when the response is not helpful or effective. 
  • This could be due to fear about trying other responses or leaving their comfort zone. 
  • The result is that we become rigid, inflexible, and always cope with problems in the same old fashion. 
  • E.g. every argument turns into a physical fight as all someone knows is to get angry and violent. 

6. Hostility and aggression

  • Masks vulnerable emotions such as anxiety, stress, fear, loss, guilt, shame, etc. 
  • Anger is a big lid that covers a lot of pain and keeps it out of your awareness. 
  • Hostility and aggression may be effective at times and in the short-term but research indicated that the more somebody use anger to cope, the angrier they become over time.

7. Negative appraisal

  • The process of utilising negative judgements to help prepare for failure and bad outcomes, to control others, or beat themselves up into being a better person. 
  • They may focus on things going wrong in the future and only pay attention to all the things that did go wrong, discounting all the things that went well. 
  • The focus on the negative or failures may seem to protect them from painful surprises, but people will end up feeling low and anxious because all of the positive experiences are filtered out. 

Types of avoidance

The ways people typically avoid painful feelings can be grouped into five basic categories. People often attempt to reduce painful emotions using two or three types of avoidance simultaneously. 

  1. Situational avoidance
  • Most common type of avoidance
  • Stay away from people, places, things, or activities that tend to trigger emotional distress
  • Consequences: restricts life and relationships

2. Cognitive avoidance

  • This mainly occurs in people’s mind
  • Involves constantly suppressing thoughts 
  • Can become the basis of worry and rumination. People might constantly worry about the outcome of an upcoming anxiety-provoking situation so they begin running various scenarios in their mind in the hope that they will solve every bad situation that may come up and it will stop a negative outcome from occurring. 
  • CONSEQUENCES: the more people try to suppress certain thoughts/memories, the more frequently they come to mind. It can also lead to being disorganised and having difficulty concentrating and getting things done efficiently because of the constant chatter in the mind. 

3. Protective avoidance

  • Attempting to avoid risk though excessive safety behaviours, such as checking locks, light switches, gas stoves, and so on.
  • Protective avoidance can take the form of compulsive cleaning or even perfectionism and over preparation.
  • CONSEQUENCES: can be very time-consuming

4. Somatic avoidance

  • Attempting to avoid experiencing internal sensations associated with emotional distress and anxiety, such as feeling out of breath, hot, or tired and light headed. 
  • CONSEQUENCES: not being able to fully engage in life’s activities. 

5. Substitution avoidance

  • Attempting to replace or drown out a painful emotion with another emotion that is more tolerable
  • E.g. someone might replace anxiety with anger as they are more comfortable dealing with anger.
  • Using food/alcohol/drugs as ways of distracting from and covering up painful emotions.
  • Developing an overall feeling of numbness to block out painful emotional experiences.
  • CONSEQUENCES: can damage relationships and mean giving up a lot valuable experiences especially with numbing.

What type of avoidance patterns can you relate to?

What consequences has this created in your life?

What are the barriers to change from experiencing pain to suffering?

How can you start challenging this avoidance pattern?

Read all about exposure and mindfulness to begin your journey to reducing avoidance.