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?
The CBT Fundamentals mini-ebook, available from the MH@H Download Centre, provides an introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy concepts along with workbook exercises.