Experiential avoidance is the term we use to describe patterns of behavior that serves to ignore or avoid uncomfortable thoughts, feelings or memories. How many times have you said to yourself, “I don’t want to think/talk about it right now?” or “Out of sight out of mind?”
Avoidance can be practical, but only if it is to address an emergency or for the completion of an important task. The problem is that we seldom come back to addressing the suppressed thoughts, feelings or memories. Furthermore, when they arise, we opt to distract ourselves with mind numbing activities such as watching TV, staring at a computer screen, spending money, gambling, drinking and using drugs. When we use drugs or alcohol to “numb out,” we are teaching our bodies and minds to believe that feeling high, or feeling nothing is a better alternative. Individuals who are addicted to mood or mind altering substances eventually come to believe that being sad, angry anxious or scared is intolerable and must never be felt.
Numbing out with any activity deadens our attention to the present moment and can even impact the quality of our lives!
So what are some ways to sidestep our tendencies to slip into experiential avoidance?
1. Learn to accept and acknowledge that unpleasant feelings are going to arise. It is normal and acceptable to feel sad, anxious afraid or angry.
2. Name your thoughts and feelings to yourself or out loud. “There is an anxiety,” “There is sadness.” Keep a journal or a log when these feelings arise.
3. Remind yourself that your thoughts and feelings are products of the mind. The mind is so attached to language that we buy into believing everything the mind is telling us. You are not your thoughts or feelings just as you are not your sadness or anxiety.
4. Practice mindfulness when your thoughts and emotions become too overwhelming. Use the five senses to ground you in the here and now. There is no place you need to escape to, just be.