Vicious Cycles: The Cost of Experiential Avoidance.
A precursor into breaking the cycle and moving forward into recovery.
(Part two of Heal with ACT series)
The Cost of Experiential Avoidance.
In the previous chapter, we talked about how your struggles are not your fault.
Mainly, that you've relied on this mechanism of Fight-or-Flight to handle your difficult experiences - such as negative thoughts and emotions, traumatic memories, or even when having to face scary experiences in your life.
They have been what you've instinctively learned as a human being capable of problem-solving. They are also strategies that have been perpetuated by the people around you.
A more effective way of dealing with these experiences has never been taught to you.
Yet, because we've become so geared towards trying to fight or run away from our experiences, we've become more and more uncomfortable in dealing with discomfort:
We think it's bad when we feel sad.
We think there's something wrong with us when we have bad thoughts about ourselves.
We avoid experiences that might make us look silly to other people.
We try out best to get rid of negative emotions as fast as we can.
These are all part of our brain's effort to keep up "safe" from threats - at least what it "thinks" will make us safe.
However, the threats we are talking about in relation to what's causing us to struggle aren't so much ones in our external environment, such as our ancestors having to deal with hungry lions or marauding tribes.
They aren't threats we have to deal with in our current physical environment either, such as a burning building or a serial killer on the loose.
They are threats that live only in our internal world.
As mentioned above, they are the thoughts that pop up in our minds about how we are not enough or failures. They are the negative emotions we feel. They are also traumatic memories or imagined scenarios of anxiety-provoking futures.
These threats are very different things front the ones that physically exist around us.
Still, our brains comes up with all kinds of solutions for how we can deal with these internal threats. At it's most basic level it sounds a bit like an alarm system in our heads blaring:
"This feels bad. Let's get rid of it as fast as we can!"
That's experiential avoidance in a nutshell.
At all costs, we avoid, avoid, avoid.
The vicious cycle of avoidance.
Russ Harris, an ACT practitioner and author of the Happiness Trap, actually has a saying for what we've been talking about:
"The solution is the problem!".
This of course is in reference to all the above strategies we've learned and been wrongly taught to deal with difficult situations in our inner world.
Remember, it's not your fault that you've been doing this wrongly.
Yet, how can a solution be the problem? Well, have a read through some of the vignettes below and see if any resonates with you:
Numbing his thoughts:
Henry is really unhappy with his career. He hates how pointless the work is and feels like he should be doing something much more meaningful with his life.
To cheer himself up after work, he tries not to think about work (suppressing) and instead, has a few beers each day (numbing), but the next day he always feels tired from the previous night of drinking.
So Henry spends each of his days doing more pointless work instead of trying to turn things around and do something more meaningful.
Escaping from a possible fearful experience:
Xiao Tian has social anxiety and is terrified at the thought of social rejection. She hates the feeling of anxiety before going to a party or a meetup, so she tries her best to stay away from those as much as possible (avoidance).
Instead, she stays home every night and watches TV (distracting). She's even anxious when a friend asks her out, because she hasn't been out all that much.
So she decides not to go and continues to be alone and isolated at home.
Suppressing grief & numbing with alcohol.
Kim Lian's wife just passed away. He fears that he can't carry on leading a normal life after this. Each day, when a semblance of grief sets in, Kim Lian starts to drink heavily so he doesn't have to deal with these feelings (numbing).
This continues for months. While initially his work gave him some time off to grieve, they finally had to let him go as he wasn't coming into work.
He carries on drinking each day and hasn't gotten back to normal life, which was the very thing he was scared of in the first place.
Arguing & running away from thoughts about abandonment.
After his mum passed away at Five, Wei Ping grew up with an irrational fear of abandonment. He never wanted to feel grief at that same level again. It affected his relationships, choosing to stay away from them even though it made him feel lonely (avoiding).
Even when his relationships were healthy, he always feared the worse and thus chose to sabotage them or prematurely end them.
He blames himself constantly and ends up being abandoned due to his own doing.
These are just some examples of how the solutions we've come to rely on from our Thinking Mind have led us full circle back to the very problems we feared in the first place, or even making it worse.
Have you ended up in a vicious cycle of your own doing? Take a moment to think about it.
The punchline is that any coping strategy around avoiding feeling a challenging emotion or thinking an upsetting thought, to wipe out a painful memory or look away from a difficult situation, will always lead to a poor long-term outcome.
Steven C. Hayes, (Creator of ACT)
Metaphorically, it's like we've been in a tug-of-war with our own mind.
This is really where our suffering comes from. We are in a constant battle with our minds to shut down or control or run away from our thoughts and feelings.
And the very fact is, when it comes to battling, fighting or even running away from the things that go on in our heads, it only ends up making things worse.
Yes, you've got it.
What this all suggests, is that any strategy around trying to control your thoughts is a battle that simply cannot be won.
We all know how automatic thoughts are and how hard it is to get rid of a difficult feeling. Thoughts cannot be deleted, chased away. Nor can emotions be suppressed and asked not come out.
They eventually will reappear again.
If our current solutions don't work, what should I do? Is there another way?
We're now aware of how our various ways of coping with negative thoughts and feelings can actually take a toll on our own lives. Trying to control, run away or shut down any negative thought just simply doesn't work.
So what do we do then? Well, let me ask you a question:
What do you do in a tug-of-war battle where you're not only been losing for a while now?
However hard you pull, the difficult thoughts and feelings seem to only pull back harder. They aren't budging. You can't get rid of them.
Yet to holding on any longer simply makes your hands more blistered and painful.
Is there another way?
Why yes. You drop the rope.
You can just let go. Suddenly, the tug-of-war is over. You're no longer struggling with your thoughts and emotions.
Does it mean that you've lost the battle? Not really, it simply means that you've decided to stop fighting this futile fight.
It doesn't matter if you're facing depression, anxiety, or any other mental challenges, here's an important thing to know.
You don't have to fight, struggle, bleed, cry or run away anymore - it's not helping you.
This doesn't mean at all that your depression, anxiety, or whatever you're experiencing has gone away either.
What it means is that you've decided to stop struggling with it.
What this does is it frees you up to have the emotional space and time to do other things in your life, especially the things that matter to you.
By learning the methods to handle your difficult thoughts and feelings better, you aren't spending all your time fighting or running away from them anymore.
You might be asking at this stage, how is this possible?
Well, it won't happen overnight. It takes time and practice.
But stay with me okay?
In the very next chapter, we'll be learning some practices to get you started immediately.
As we become better at seeing how certain solutions our Thinking Mind offers are not helpful to us anymore, we can then stop acting on them. The power over your choices comes back to you, and you can open up yourself to a life to the qualities of being and doing that you truly value.
This understanding is the precursor to starting your journey with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Of course, it's early in the day and we're only in the second chapter on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We've got a journey ahead of us.
So do read on to understand how it is possible to come to acceptance of whatever it is you are suffering through, and to commit yourself to a healthier and more value-driven direction.
Thanks for reading and I hope you get a chance to read and use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy through your own struggle. Thanks, Hernping