Experiential avoidance disorder: symptoms, causes and treatment.
A type of psychological disorder that comes from the desire to avoid discomfort.
Suffering, however unpleasant and painful it may be, is part of human existence. It is something that, like life and death or love and hate, is present to a greater or lesser extent in each of us.
In the case of suffering too much it is logical and totally indicated that each one should look for methods to reduce this feeling, however, sometimes it happens that the more one tries to avoid Pain the more one thinks about it and, as a collateral effect, the more one suffers.
This may be a sign that one is suffering from experiential avoidance disordera psychological condition in which all attempts to avoid what produces an aversive sensation ironically mean that the more you think about it. Let's take a closer look at its characteristics and what therapies are used to treat it.
What is experiential avoidance disorder?
The disorder of experiential avoidance disorder is a disorder in which the person avoids or escapes from an aversive experience.. Negative sensations, emotions or thoughts are not accepted, focusing all the forces in fleeing from them, but without allowing oneself to continue enjoying life because the aversive experiences have not yet been eliminated.
Among the people who suffer it is very frequent to hear phrases like 'I need to be well to be able to do things', 'I cannot work well if I am not happy' or 'I cannot enjoy doing exercise while I think about the bad things'. This is a sign of how the person feels great discomfort due to his rumination and, in addition, he is not able to obtain pleasurable sensations because he does not allow them to occur or does not go in search of them.
The disorder is verbal in nature, ie, it is determined by the verbal disposition of the person to classify what is seen as good or bad, based on private events, with both physical and verbal characteristics, as well as negative evaluations, responses to events and life experiences.
Problems related to experiential avoidance can appear when one begins to act in a rigid way to eliminate or avoid the internal experience, being a very present factor in the way the person behaves. This will be done consciously at first, but after a certain amount of time has passed, the person will incorporate this avoidance into his or her repertoire of behaviors, which will become automatic.
Efforts to avoid the unpleasant sensation interfere with emotional responses.In addition, they jeopardize aspects considered important and pleasurable for the person, such as hobbies, personal relationships, work, and so on.
Is avoidance always bad? Characteristics of the disorder
In short, experiential avoidance consists of trying to avoid unpleasant thoughts, sensations and emotions, with the intention of not experiencing them. However, this should not be understood to mean that avoiding something unpleasant is necessarily a psychological disorder. Human beings constantly avoid phenomena that are unpleasant to them, and this is usually a positive thing.
The avoidance of something that may be harmful is, in fact, an adaptive resource, since one flees from something that may harm one's physical or mental integrity.It is a way to flee from something that can harm the physical or mental integrity of the person. For example, being in the countryside, if we see a bee fluttering near where we are, it is good to move away a little because, although it has not shown any intention of attacking us, we do not want it to end up doing so.
However, avoidance becomes a problem, avoidance becomes a problem if, in doing so, it comes at a great cost to the person, both in terms of his or her state of mind and in terms of his or her feelings of anxiety.The avoidance becomes a problem if, in doing so, it costs the person a great deal in terms of both mood and physical well-being. It is possible that, in order to avoid the unpleasant sensation, behaviors are carried out that are satisfying in the short term, but are harmful in the long term. This can be summarized in a simple formula: avoidance is a bad thing when the harm of avoidance is greater than the harm that is avoided.
The proposed diagnostic criteria for this disorder are as follows:
- Constant feelings revolving around feeling bad.
- The mind becomes obsessed with coping with discomfort.
- Great efforts to control sensations, emotions and negative thoughts.
- Rigid belief that one cannot enjoy oneself without first eliminating all discomfort.
- Waiting to be well to fully develop as a person.
Let's take the case of a person who has just suffered the loss of a loved one.. It is normal to go through the grieving phase, which is sad and undesirable, but totally normal after the death of someone you loved. In this case, the person would be showing behaviors related to experiential avoidance if instead of accepting the situation or seeking psychological help to overcome the process, he/she consumed alcohol to escape from reality. He is running the risk of becoming an alcoholic.
The main cause that has been hypothesized to explain this little known disorder is related to the personality of the sufferer. It has been suggested that the origin of experiential avoidance is psychological inflexibility when it comes to handling one's own experienced discomfort, both trying to escape from it and avoiding it.
By not being able to adapt to the fact that the suffering is going to be there, and by having the rigid idea that in order to enjoy first it is necessary to eliminate all unpleasant sensations, the person's life revolves around the fact that the suffering will be there.The person's life revolves around avoidance.
The individual closes himself to the experience of painful emotions, sensations and thoughts and is not able to continue with his daily tasks and hobbies. Continuing to think about the bad and not seeking out good experiences leads to an increasingly damaging loop. If you suffer from depression or anxiety, this is even worse.
Consequences of experiential avoidance
As we were saying, if the person who suffers from this disorder suffers, in addition, from another negative psychological condition, such as anxiety and depression, the situation can be especially serious.
Disorders whose symptoms are these psychological problems should be treated professionally.. If the person who is suffering from them is carrying out efficient strategies to increase his or her well-being, that is a positive thing and totally appropriate. As far as possible, mood and anxiety disorders can be overcome.
However, during the recovery process, the person must be aware that he or she will suffer a certain degree of discomfort, and must accept this while the therapy is being carried out. Waiting until all the discomfort is gone to start doing beneficial behaviors on an emotional level, such as hobbies, is a problem that makes it difficult for therapy to continue, since there are no positive reinforcements that make the person more and more motivated and overcome their psychological problems.
Not accepting the discomfort of these problems, avoiding them or running away from theminvolves the following situations:
- Trying to control the discomfort, which makes one more aware of it and, in turn, increases.
- The day to day becomes a constant struggle against this discomfort, taking away the importance of reinforcers or pleasant sensations.
These two avoidant behaviors have, in turn, several implications at the social level in the person's life. The person becomes progressively isolated from his or her circle of friends and even family. It is expected to be well enough to go to the movies, to the gym, to resume studies, to go to work... This can stretch for a long time, even months and years.
Treatment: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
As we have already mentioned, suffering is part of the life of any person and, although it is always preferable to look for a way to reduce or eliminate the cause of this discomfort, sometimes this option is not possible. There are certain thoughts, sensations and emotions which cannot simply cease to exist and, therefore, looking for ways to make them cease to be felt is impossible.
The best thing to do in these cases is to accept that you are going to have these experiences, no matter how unpleasant they may be. Focusing on eliminating them can be a huge waste of energy and may result in too much attention being given to them, making it difficult to move towards a vital goal and a pleasant feeling for the person.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy seeks to make the person aware that he/she is indeed suffering from a certain discomfort, but that he/she must accept it, not run away from it. should accept it, not run away from it.. There are aspects in life that are not going to disappear and waiting for them to be solved or running away from them are not good strategies if they are detrimental to the person's life in general.
Therapists use different strategies to treat the symptomatology associated with experiential avoidance disorder, such as Mindfulness, Mindfulness, Mindfulness, Mindfulness, Mindfulness, Mindfulness, and Mindfulness.These include Mindfulness, therapeutic metaphors and cognitive de-fusion. In addition, the focus of therapeutic action is also centered on the restoration of the most important aspects for the person, such as hobbies, work, academic, social and family life.
The aim is to get him to stop fighting against his discomfort and, instead, to focus on carrying out actions that imply true well-being, which will make his life increasingly richer in pleasant experiences and that he will come to accept that being unwell does not mean not being able to enjoy himself.
A final thought
In developed societies, especially in the Western world, the philosophy of always being well, of enjoying every activity, both leisure and work, has been promoted. We are not allowed to feel bad, and any negative feeling is seen as a symbol of weakness or as a cause for great concern. Being sad, crying, experiencing unpleasant moments are undoubted parts of life, but it seems that experiencing them is something that is almost forbidden and those who experience them struggle so that no one notices.
Feeling good has become a fundamental aspect in the model of a successful person. that has been tried to impose both by the media and by more personal environments, such as the family or school. Being always happy is seen as something that is synonymous with being a fully adapted person, although this belief is totally wrong.
Euthymia, that is, living all kinds of feelings within limits considered healthy, is an evolutionary mechanism, which allows the survival of the person in addition to its adaptation in social terms. There are days when we feel good, and others not so good. On the days when we are sad, we are sad for some reason that, if we think about it, allows us to learn from our mistakes or on the basis of some situation that we did not like. We live in the moment, and it allows us to keep on living..
If we become obsessed with being perfectly happy, focusing on avoiding the negative feeling or thought and putting off pleasant experiences that we could be doing right now, isn't it as if we are actually sabotaging our own happiness?
- Luoma, J. B., Hayes, S. C., & Walser, R. D. (2007). Learning ACT: An acceptance and commitment therapy skills-training manual for therapists. Oakland, CA, US: New Harbinger Publications.
- Hayes, Steven C.; Spencer Smith (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications.