Experiential Avoidance

ostrich effect

Experiential avoidance (EA) has been broadly defined as attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences—even when doing so creates harm in the long-run. The process of EA is thought to be maintained through negative reinforcement—that is, short-term relief of discomfort is achieved through avoidance, thereby increasing the likelihood that the behavior will persist.

Importantly, the current conceptualization of EA suggests that it is not negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are problematic, but how one responds to them that can cause difficulties. In particular, a habitual and persistent unwillingness to experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings (and the associated avoidance and inhibition of these experiences) is thought to be linked to a wide range of problems.

EA has been popularized by recent third-wave cognitive-behavioral theories such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). However, the general concept has roots in many other theories of psychopathology and intervention.

Defense mechanisms were originally conceptualized as ways to avoid unpleasant affect and discomfort that resulted from conflicting motivations. These processes were thought to contribute to the expression of various types of psychopathology. Gradual removal of these defensive processes are thought to be a key aspect of treatment and eventually return to psychological health.

Gestalt theory outlines the benefits of being fully aware and open to one’s entire experience. One job of the psychotherapist is to ‘explore and become fully aware of [the patient’s] grounds for avoidance’ and to ‘[lead] the patient back to that which he wishes to avoid.’ Similar ideas are expressed by early humanistic theory: ‘Whether the stimulus was the impact of a configuration of form, color, or sound in the environment on the sensory nerves, or a memory trace from the past, or a visceral sensation of fear or pleasure or disgust, the person would be ‘living’ it, would have it completely available to awareness…he is more open to his feelings of fear and discouragement and pain…he is more able fully to live the experiences of his organism rather than shutting them out of awareness.’

Traditional behavior therapy utilizes exposure to habituate the patient to various types of fears and anxieties, eventually resulting in a marked reduction in psychopathology. In this way, exposure can be thought of as ‘counter-acting’ avoidance, in that it involves individuals repeatedly encountering and remaining in contact with that which causes distress and discomfort.

In cognitive theory, avoidance interferes with reappraisals of negative thought patterns and schema, thereby perpetuating distorted beliefs. These distorted beliefs are thought to contribute and maintain many types of psychopathology.

Laboratory based thought suppression studies suggest avoidance is paradoxical, in that concerted attempts at suppression of a particular thought often leads to an increase of that thought. Studies examining emotional suppression and pain suppression suggest that avoidance is ineffective in the long-run. Conversely, expressing unpleasant emotion results in short-term increases in arousal, but long-term decreases in arousal.

Exposure-based therapy techniques have been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of psychiatric disorders.

Perhaps the most significant impact of EA is its potential to disrupt and interfere with important, valued aspects of an individual’s life. That is, EA is seen as particularly problematic when it occurs at the expense of a person’s deeply held values. Some examples include: Putting off an important task because of the discomfort it evokes. Not taking advantage of an important opportunity due to attempts to avoid worries of failure or disappointment. Not engaging in physical activity/exercise, meaningful hobbies, or other recreational activities due to the effort they demand. Avoiding social gatherings or interactions with others because of the anxiety and negative thoughts they evoke. Being unable to fully engage in meaningful conversations with others because one is scanning for signs of danger in the environment (attempting to avoid feeling ‘unsafe’). Inability to ‘connect’ and sustain a close relationship because of attempts to avoid feelings of vulnerability.

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