Experiential Avoidance: The Desire to Avoid Distress

The Effects of Experiential Avoidance

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul.” – Carl Jung

When we experience unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or sensations, there is often a natural tendency to want to avoid these uncomfortable experiences – sometimes, at all costs. This is called experiential avoidance.  The irony is that experiential avoidance has been found to actually maintain psychological distress (Hayes et al., 1996).

We all have a natural survival instinct embedded within us that creates our aversive reaction to unpleasant or uncomfortable events.  This hard wired instinct tells us to avoid things that are unpleasant, because they are likely to be dangerous or harmful (e.g., a man running at you with a weapon or an oncoming car).  However, this same instinct affects our internal processes as well, disconnecting the self from thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

No matter how hard you try to escape yourself and all of your internal thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you are stuck with you. It is in your best interest to cultivate a willingness and ability to connect with yourself – even with the parts that seem frightening or painful.  When we try to run away from or deny unpleasant thoughts or feelings, we are creating an internal “battlefield.”  We are essentially declaring internal war upon the self – there are no winners, only losers.

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 for relief from the internal pain to occur, you must open yourself up to experiencing the very thoughts and feelings that you are trying so hard to avoid.  This is very hard.

As Gunaratana said, “pain is inevitable, suffering is not” (2002, p. 99).  The distinction here is very important. The pain that comes along with certain thoughts, feelings, and events in life cannot be avoided.  It is only when we react to life’s inevitable pain by contracting the body and mind that we create our own suffering.  We create suffering that does not need to exist.

Acceptance is the complete opposite of avoidance.  When we learn to practice mindfulness in our daily lives and apply an open and accepting attitude to all internal and external experiences (including the painful ones), then we free ourselves from suffering.

It can be difficult for many people to believe that opening themselves up to their pain will free them from suffering.  If this sounds like you, consider the fact that, with all of your efforts to avoid your pain, you are still suffering. There must be another way.  When you have spent a great deal of your life applying the same technique to pain that comes your way (e.g., avoiding it or denying it), and yet you still suffer, perhaps this is a signal that it is time to try something different.

Crane explains that “mindfulness practice is a training process that enables us to clearly see these habitual avoidant patterns … pain is an aspect of the overall ‘tapestry’ of our life and … it is the avoidance of this reality that creates emotional difficulty.”

The next time that you experience an aversive, unpleasant, or unwanted thought, feeling, or sensation, use it as an opportunity to choose to respond to the event differently than you normally would.  Notice the unpleasant event, welcome it into your experience, examine it for what it is, accept it completely (which does not mean approve of it), and then let it go.

When we sit with unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations (even if only briefly), they lose their power.  They are just thoughts – just feelings – and just sensations.  Don’t allow your mind to give them more power than they deserve.  They only cause you to suffer if you allow them to.  Practice a new mindful way of meeting all experiences with openness and acceptance.

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Crane, R. (2009). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Featured image: I Can’t See You … by tropical.pete / CC BY-SA 2.0

5 Responses to Experiential Avoidance: The Desire to Avoid Distress
  1. Alex
    February 18, 2013 | 1:00 pm

    The trickiest part of for me is genuinely facing the stress/pain, rather than using this technique as a way to avoid it.

    So one is genuine courage the other is just advanced avoidance.

    But the way you write just helps me get it so easy. So again thank you very much!!!

    • Rodger
      March 20, 2013 | 4:50 am

      I don’t think you’re alone…..I’m reading ‘Get out of your mind and into your life’ By Dr Hayes and the whole accepting without seeking to get rid of painful thoughts and feelings is certainly a foreign concept…..I avoid everything but I see that this avoidance is the root cause of my suffering.

      • Alex
        March 20, 2013 | 10:54 pm

        Wow you have such a way with words in terms of helping me/others get it. Thanks a million for the awesome reply!:)

  2. Tom
    January 13, 2015 | 2:42 pm

    Hi – I was very interested by much of what you have written except for the last part of your article.

    I’m uncomfortable with your suggestion to not give your feelings any more power than they deserve. Perhaps you could explain what you have meant here further?

    As a therapist I believe it is an abuse to accept a feeling without physically experiencing it deeply – whether it be anger, joy, sadness etc (allowing for release of its power and integration of a potentially new form of expression). I believe strongly in mindfulness and have a long standing practice but there is a danger it be used to simply accept (or avoid as Alex has written) feelings without experiencing them and that to me is an unhealthy way of processing them – in fact it could be more harmful and seen as a defence from honouring them, resulting in symptoms or the development of defences……

  3. leslie
    December 28, 2015 | 12:03 pm

    Hi, I am trying to learn mindful meditation and have very painful fibromyalgia all the time. I am having trouble understanding applying and accepting this all encompassing pain during my meditation time. Can you help shed some light on how I might better understand this?

    Thanks, Leslie

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