The Problem of Experiential Avoidance

Several decades of research have demonstrated that persistent attempts to avoid our internal experiences can lead to intensified psychological suffering and underpin many psychological disorders (Chawla & Ostafin, 2007; Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette & Strosahl, 1996). As a result, many CBT-based interventions tend to work with a client’s patterns of avoidance.

However, we should be mindful that not all experiential avoidance or attempts to control our thoughts are inherently ‘wrong’ moves. For example, if we were triggered into intense anger during an important meeting at work with our job on the line, we might choose to distract ourselves and carry on with the day, rather than risk an explosive argument with our manager.

Of course, avoiding threats and painful experiences in the outside world can be necessary and useful to us. For example, when exploring the Australian hinterland, trying to ‘avoid’ any harmful wildlife is probably a very good idea!

One of the reasons that we try to apply a strategy of avoidance so often to our mental experiences is that avoidance is so essential for survival in terms of our interactions with our environment. Predators, contaminants, natural disasters, heights, and a range of other threats must be avoided if we are to survive. However, when we then apply the same strategy to our mental experiences, things tend to go badly for us. The more that we attempt to avoid having certain thoughts, emotions, and memories, the more that they show up.

Imagine that a teenage girl is having intrusive images of causing harm to another person. She believes that if she could just rid herself of those private events for a few minutes by avoiding the situations that trigger them, then she can feel better. She has therefore been avoiding school, her friends, her home life, or another context that is meaningful to her life. As we would expect, this may work for a short time, but it results in the thoughts showing up more often with time, and with greater intensity. Our body responds to mental events as if they were real, so these thoughts and images cause her to have an accelerated threat response with great ensuing anxiety. She doesn’t want to have these emotions, sensations, urges, or feelings and may do other things to further rid herself of these kinds of experiences. The experiential avoidance is compounded by doing so.

For those who have extremely distressing or unwanted thoughts and feelings, the desire to push them away or deny them is understandable.  After all, who would “want” to experience pain and suffering?  In order to experience relief from the internal pain, you must first open yourself up to experiencing the very thoughts and feelings that you are trying so hard to avoid.  This is very hard.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we aim to explore and understand our patterns of inner avoidance, including the desire to escape our distress and the function of doing so. ACT cultivates our capacity to bring gentle and self-compassionate acceptance to our experience of the present moment and all that it contains.

References:

Tirch, D., Silberstein-Tirch, L. R., Codd III, R. T., Brock, M. J., & Wright, M. J. (2019). Experiencing ACT from the inside Out. (Bennett-Levy, J, Ed.). The Guildford Press: London.