If you are one of those who commonly avoid tasks or specific situations, it could be for many reasons. But before you can work on solving or completing a job you’ve been putting off, it’s essential to narrow down what type of avoidance you are using to evade something in your life, so you can know how best to combat it.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “What you resist persists,” you have been introduced to the fundamental reason why your avoidance and how you cope can increase anxiety.
Emotional Or Cognitive Avoidance
This type of avoidance usually happens internally and can’t be seen by anyone other than the person experiencing the avoidance. When you, emotionally or cognitively, avoid something, it means that you avoid ruminating about it.
Cognitive avoidance is about avoiding internal events such as unpleasant or distressing thoughts or memories. With this type of avoidance, people usually suppress or reject the experience of certain kinds of thoughts that feel unpleasant or overwhelming.
This can mean either blocking out the thoughts when they come to mind or repressed memories that can be incredibly stressful.
Emotional avoidance is especially prominent after someone has experienced a trauma, and is very common in people living with PTSD. Sometimes this type of avoidance requires medical intervention to resolve.
Situational avoidance is when you specifically avoid a particular person, place, or thing which may remind you of something which makes you unhappy. This frequently happens in friend groups when certain group members have had an altercation and don’t want to go to events where they may see the person they have disagreed with to avoid causing problems.
You may also notice this type of avoidance in a friend who constantly changes the subject when a particular topic comes up in conversation. This type of avoidance is much easier to see among your family and friends.
This is a type of people-pleasing behaviour that typically arises from a deep-rooted fear of upsetting others.
Many of these tendencies can be traced back to growing up in a dismissive or hypercritical environment.
People who respond to conflict this way often expect unfavourable outcomes and find it difficult to trust the other person’s reaction.
Here are more examples of how this may manifest:
1. Stonewalling or denying an issue exists by ignoring it
2. Fear of disappointing others
3. Deliberately sidestepping conversations
4. Silently resenting unresolved issues
This type of avoidance is where you may go out of your way to protect yourself from feeling a particular emotion or experiencing something once again. For example, someone who was the victim of a robbery may obsessively check the locks on all the doors in the house to ensure they are locked.
Substitution avoidance is essentially trying to replace one feeling with another. A person might replace grief with anger or another emotion that feels more tolerable for her at the time. For instance, patients who are unable to cope with difficult emotions might binge on food, substances, sex, pornography, shopping, or gambling as a way to distract.
Numbing out is also a form of substitution avoidance.
“Emotional numbing is the mental and emotional process of shutting out feelings and may be experienced as deficits of emotional responses or reactivity,”
Avoidance is so natural and familiar that it can take complex forms and look completely different from one situation to the next. Avoidance isn’t always maladaptive, but in many cases involving internal events, it is not sustainable in the long run and can make things worse.
Understanding the ways clients may be habitually turning away from their problems or rejecting difficult emotions is a great place to start helping them develop more adaptive responses to their distress.
Suppose you find yourself avoiding specific tasks, thoughts, or people. In that case, it’s time to evaluate why you are doing so, keeping these types of avoidance in mind once you have discovered just what you are avoiding and why only then can you work towards fixing the issue and getting professional help if you find that you can’t overcome your avoidance tenancies alone.
While it can be tempting to bottle up feelings like anger and frustration by not rocking the boat, conflict-avoiding tendencies can take a toll on your mental health.