On Experiential Avoidance: Conceptual Issues in Treatment

Fear of our feelings can be a debilitating reality for those who suffer. Biblical counselors want to help people navigate their undesired emotions in a way that is honoring to God and productive for them. As part of this process we want to explore both the conceptual and practical steps in treatment that can lead people to healing. There are two initial conceptual issues that must be addressed in helping people with internal avoidance.

Understanding Experiential Avoidance

Before we dive into the treatment we should at least give a quick survey of the issue. Experiential Avoidance is the large umbrella term for attempts people make to block out, reduce, or change their experiences of negative or unwanted emotions, memories, or bodily sensations. There are varied strategies that an individual might use to escape these feelings, but the overall goal is to avoid any negative or uncomfortable experiences. Experiential Avoidance often develops in those who have had traumatic pasts. It is a core symptom in cases of PTSD and we can appreciate why it develops. If my memories and feelings were associated with a traumatic incident then re-experiencing those things causes me increased anxiety, hurt, and grief. And while it is true that avoidance strategies may give people some temporary relief, in the long-run Experiential Avoidance actually creates worse problems.

For example, avoidance actually further cements the negative emotions and memories into our daily life. Sometimes, the more we try to avoid thinking about something the more time we actually end up thinking about it. The recurrence of traumatic reminders makes individuals more likely to focus energy and time on stopping and avoiding the recall of these negative emotions and memories. Overtime avoidance becomes a life-consuming goal. Other activities, pleasure, and goals fade into the background of this dominant focus. In addition stimulus generalization indicates that the number of triggers for the traumatic recall will only increase over time. So, while early on only one thing triggered the recall, the generalization process means my mind picks up other cues that eventually become triggers too. So, one author used the example of a woman who was assaulted in an alley becoming triggered by the sight of that specific alley. Over time, however, all alleys may become triggers, and then, with increased focus the red brick may become a trigger, then all bricks, then perhaps even simply the color red. The cues can expand and expand until all of life is consumed in avoidance of feeling or memory.

In addition to this first point, we might also want to point out that some avoidance strategies can actually be more harmful. Common forms of escape include substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, risky thrill-seeking in general, and self-harm. What provides some immediate temporary relief will, in the long-run, create more serious problems.

Lastly, avoidance creates problems because it robs individuals of other important pleasurable experiences. Life is not meant to be lived in the negative. If all of life is centered around “don’t” then we will surely become depressed and consumed with anxiety. We ought to strive, instead, for some level of “do.” Avoidance-focused-living misses out on the important pleasurable, communal, and life-giving experiences around us. Negative reinforcement instead of positive reinforcement controls the life and significantly limits a person’s range of activities.

Understanding Emotions

So, how do we navigate, then, these negative and unwanted emotions? If internal avoidance is not productive, then what should we do? How can we help others? The process is not simple and quick. It takes time and patience to walk with those who are struggling in this way. The process begins by helping people understand the nature of emotions and the reality of suffering.

The assumption made by many individuals is that their emotions are the problem, and therefore they should be avoided. Negative emotions, however, work as indicators – like the check engine light on your car dashboard. They tell us that something is wrong and call us to address the problem. In other words, our emotions are not the problem but only indicators that there is one. By avoiding the negative emotions we are leaving the real issue unaddressed and are likely only to see it worsen. Helping people learn to make this distinction is an important first step in the process to change.

Emotions themselves may not be bad. As Jay Adams put it many years ago:

The fact is that there are no damaging or destructive emotions per se.  Our emotional makeup is totally from God.  All emotions of which He made us capable are constructive when used properly (i.e., in accordance with biblical principles). (The Christian Counselor’s Manual, 349)

Emotions are good and useful. God, himself, experiences emotions. Within Scripture God is angry (Ex. 32:10-11), grieved (Ps. 78:40), and joyful (Zeph. 3:17). As those made in His image we too experience emotions. Our emotions, then, even the negative ones, are good. The more pressing issue is not what we feel, but how we respond to what we feel. Do our feelings drive us to respond to God and the world in ways that honor Him, or do we respond to our experiences in sinful and destructive ways. When the Psalmist says, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Ps. 56:3), He is responding to his fear in faith. Likewise Jesus, when he is stressed in the Garden of Gethsemane about his impending crucifixion, cries out “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). He responds in faith. The focus, then, should not be on what we feel but how we respond to what we feel. Again, this is an important conceptual distinction that good counselors will want to patiently walk people towards.

Understanding Suffering

A second conceptual issue we want to address in the initial stages of counseling is a theology of suffering. Experiential Avoidance is rooted in the belief that nothing that feels bad can be good, and that bad things can actually be avoided in this life. Both convictions are false. The reality is that our world is broken and bad things will happen. They cannot be completely avoided. “In this world you will have trouble,” says Jesus (John 16:33). It’s a given. Attempting to avoid it is an attempt to live outside of reality and will only result in further suffering: anxiety, possible dissociation, psychopathology, and general frustration. Helping individuals, then, to develop a Biblical theology of suffering is an important step in the process of healing. We must help people to recognize two vital things about suffering: (1) It can’t be avoided; and (2) It can produce good.

Suffering, despite feeling painful, can have good outcomes. For example, suffering can invite communal support. Those who love us surround us in times of despair and care for us, strengthening bonds of intimacy and trust. In addition, suffering helps us to develop character and endurance (Rom. 5:3-5). Finally, suffering draws us closer to the God who sees our suffering and wants us to remember His sovereign care for us. There is value, then, in what suffering does in us and to us, at some level. Ultimately, the Bible tells us that even these painful things can work for our good (Rom. 8:28). This is not a trite statement to be uttered quickly. It is a theological truth to be developed patiently and sensitively with victims of trauma. Ultimately, we know suffering can be good because of the gospel. The gospel reveals that God took the horrific suffering of Jesus and used it to bring about the redemption of sinners. In fact, His suffering was designed to do that very good (Isa. 53:5).

This truth is not where you start, but you do eventually want to get here. We want to help people to see that what they are attempting to avoid may be a key to healing. When psychopathology becomes the solution to a problem, it actually becomes part of the problem itself. Helping people to understand the role of suffering is an important conceptual step leading them hopefully towards change.

There is obviously far more that must be done to help individuals struggling with internal avoidance. We have simply discussed here two key conceptual issues that must be addressed in the process of counseling. Next week we will explore some of the practical steps that can be applied to help people navigate and respond to the undesired emotions that they have been avoiding.

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