MH@H Mental Health

To Avoid Or Not to Avoid: Coping With Mental Illness

To avoid or not to avoid? Coping with mental illness - image of child hiding under couch cushions

As Hamlet didn’t say, to avoid or not to avoid, that is the question! Sometimes avoidance is adaptive.  If we see a mama bear and her cubs, we know we need to steer clear.  This is when our caveman brain is programmed to kick into fight or flight mode, and we probably never would have moved far beyond the caves without it.  But a lot of avoidance is maladaptive, and often it’s hard to see the difference.  

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) talks about safety behaviours, which are behaviours that we deliberately engage in to try to keep ourselves safe from whatever causes us to feel fear or anxiety.  However, these behaviours actually serve to reinforce anxiety rather than keeping us safe from actual dangers.

I think avoidance can be a reasonably good thing if it is consistent with underlying values.  As an introvert, I know that large group social situations are very unpleasant and exhausting for me, and I would much rather spend time one-on-one with close friends.  It felt quite empowering when I decided to limit my exposure to unpleasant social gatherings and focus on the kind of socializing that I valued.  

On the other hand, my depression makes me avoidant of people in any context, which really isn’t consistent with who I am as a person.

Some approaches to dealing with trauma, like cognitive processing therapy, suggest that avoidance serves to perpetuate incomplete processing of the trauma, and avoidance must be addressed and overcome in order to proceed with processing of the traumatic memories.  I have tried to push through this in creating my own trauma account, but I’ve taken a break from that process over the last couple of weeks because I haven’t been feeling very well.  It’s hard to tell if that’s just me giving in to avoidance, but right now I don’t feel like I’d be able to create a psychological safe place to contain that.

Avoidance tends to be my fall-back coping mechanism when I don’t have the mental/emotional capacity to deal with a given situation at a given time.  I try to give myself permission to be ok with using avoidance in those contexts, but it’s also a signal that I need to work on building resilience, which I’m really not sure how to do.  Avoidance gets me out of a situation I can’t cope with, but if I’m not somehow building my capacity to cope, the pattern is just going to keep repeating.  

I don’t know that it’s necessarily a matter of learning new skills, because I think I manage pretty well when I’m not depressed.  But when I’m not well it feels like I lose access to a lot of things that would normally be available when I’m well.

I really don’t have any answers right now.  Avoidance is probably going to continue being my fall-back for the near future, and I’ll just have to see how things evolve.

What role does avoidance play in managing your mental health/illness, and how do you decide whether to avoid or not to avoid?

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30 thoughts on “To Avoid Or Not to Avoid: Coping With Mental Illness”

  1. when I’m overwhelmed or super triggered avoidance seems to be my go too. It’s just the best self -protection I can do for myself sometimes. Hang in there my friend!

  2. Avoidance…. it could be called that…. I tend to call it “my safety”…. I have to have a “safe place” to go to as I’m recovering and dealing with past trauma, aswell as present/percieved/real hurts etc.
    I think it’s good to try and push through these barriers and test yourself and be with people, and explore, but also I think we need that safe place to come back to and know that it’s there…to reflect and just enjoy being in our own space again for a while.
    People do exhaust me because often I am having to adapt to the ones around me. Even online, too much “people interacting” will wear me thin, and I need to withdraw. It’s just how it is. You have to know yourself and know your body and mind and when you need that time away. I guess what’s unhealthy is when it becomes overwhelming where we won’t do or go to anything or go and be with anyone. That fight or flight response has often been triggered when we were younger and dealing with trauma, and it’s been switched on to constant mode. Unfortunately for many of us with Anxiety disorders, BPD, and many other disorders, this makes us very hypervigilant all the while. We are expecting danger even when there isn’t any perhaps. We always have to be prepared just in case. As with most things in life… Balance is needed.

  3. I’m avoiding everything today. Not sure if I could manage not avoiding, but I can see how this isn’t really helping me long term.

  4. The term has surfaced a lot for me lately and it was only last week I learned about avoidance. I use it quite a bit and have no clue where to start to stop it. I am an introvert as well and most of my avoidance techniques are used in large groups when the chatter in my head is super loud. My most go to is my phone. I will bury my head and never look up if I feel uncomfortable. I never knew this to be unhealthy until reading a few articles about it and you make sense of that here. I suppose I can begin working on this but I really don’t care to. That’s odd for me because I put a lot of work into my recovery but I can’t see me being in a large crowd socializing.

    1. I also just don’t care to work on socializing in large crowds, but I do want to improve my ability to tolerate one-on-one social contact. I figure why waste energy on something that doesn’t really fit with who I am as an introverted person.

  5. I avoid a lot too. It perpetuates the depression, because the depression and social anxiety become tactics for avoiding stuff as well as the cause. “I’m too depressed to go to work/the party/etc.” I’m trying to do it less, but it’s REALLY hard.

  6. Avoidance has been my go to, and in the between-the-crap times, bottling up my emotions or numbing out had always seemed super helpful in “passing.” Avoidance lets a girl with undiagnosed ADHD and complex trauma get a grad degree and “good” job without revealing she’s non-neurotypical. The price, unfortunately, is that the situation itself eventually got bad enough to get through the avoidance/numbing defenses. It hasn’t been pretty when that happens, and that’s been happening enough with my life right now that I’m starting to get why there *was* a downside to it in the past. It only works for so long, and sometines the world can find your break point even when you excel at it … 🙁

  7. This was an awesome post. Add me to the column of “need to figure out the good/bad avoidance balance” people. In fact, the reason I even opened up my computer tonight is to distract myself from an overwhelming day and some really big emotions. I’m trying to balance feeling the feelings, addressing the day (and trying to get a realistic view of it, rather than a distorted one), connecting with my family and trying to avoid letting depression have a chance at taking the wheel. It’s a process, and today isn’t even one day or hour at a time. I’m currently at the one minute at a time level of the process. Tomorrow is another day, and it can be (and I hope it is) a better day.

  8. I can certainly relate to avoiding certain aspects of my life. There are certain things I know I must do, but I tend to put it on the back burner sometimes, hoping for it to work itself out. I don’t avoid my very small group of friends, because they are all I have in this world. Besides the fact that each one of us has a mental illness, we are there for one another every step of the way.
    Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, just take baby steps on working the avoidance thing out. I hope you feel better soon, Ashley. 🙂

  9. It is. The very moment I get my next job, I’m going to create a post of the horrible things that I’ve heard in my current office about mental health – and the replies I write in my head to stay sane. I can’t say them out loud…both because my brain goes too numb to think of them in real time and because for now I need to pay rent…but I look forward to the day I can offer up the witty replies I’ve come up with later to such bs. Maybe someone *else* will get a chance to actually use them in real life when they hear stigma crap the next time…

  10. “Avoidance gets me out of a situation I can’t cope with, but if I’m not somehow building my capacity to cope, the pattern is just going to keep repeating.” Yes. Avoidance is very necessary for me sometimes, but I hope to decrease it in the future. Maybe I can think of it as an unhealthy coping skill that is helping me now but I should try to wean myself off of, safely, eventually.

  11. Avoidance is a huge thing for me, I probably fool myself into believing it’s for the right reasons but who knows? My mood has stabilized and my depression symptoms are minimal most of the time, part of this has to be because I manage my life to limit stress, by avoidance. But it’s working so why should I do anything differently?

    Do you have any professional support for your mental health? Therapy, counselling or anything?
    You know yourself better than anyone, so if stepping back from stress helps then it’s not all bad.

    Busy catching up on a week of WordPress now I’m feeling a lot better!

  12. If I am depressed, like I am now, I will avoid most things if I can! I am good at avoiding the things I don’t want to do and the things I don’t want to deal with!

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