Phase 5 - When We Avoid What We Fear, We Are Fear Driven
When traumatic impressions or maladjusted schema drive behavior they are reinforced. In other words, fear driven behavior validates what we fear. This is typically true when we use avoidance to cope with our fears and strong emotions. This means that the phobic person who avoids flying aggravates his fears; the shy person who avoids social contacts intensifies her social anxiety. On the other hand, avoidance as a coping mechanism is built into our psyches to help sustain us under the harshest realities. Avoidant coping typically dismisses or denies the existence of an emotional disturbance. The avoidance forms in several ways: Burying Thoughts, Evading, Anesthetizing, Staying Distracted.
Burying Thoughts with their associated feelings can allow us to function under very adverse circumstances. In the heat of combat, for instance, it is important to remain functional even when an allied friend or family member falls to the enemy. Burying grief and terror in this case sustains our ability to proceed with our objective. This type of coping may require that some dissociating occur. In other word, we don’t let the mind’s natural ability to associate occur because it potentially lead us to painful and even overwhelming feelings. It is similar when we are exposed to other horrors like domestic violence and street crime.
Getting sick is sometimes an expression of the “dis-ease” in our minds. Richard had recurrent eczema. The condition waxed and waned paralleling his levels of distress. This meant that the mental distress was manifesting as a physical condition. The eczema was at last brought under control after he was able to mindfully focus his attention on the condition. Prior to that time he would avoid thinking about his eczema because he was terrified that focusing on the condition would cause it to spread. Mindfulness is a form of radical acceptance that supplants the maladjusted avoidant coping. Richard used the assimilation procedure in which he would focus on his fears then shift his attention on to his body. This allowed him to adjust and reduce the dread and terror associated with the skin condition.
Norma suffered a brutal betrayal of trust as a youngster, enduring serious acts of abuse from her caregiver. The resulting fear and confusion created emotional wounds that she learned to avoid through thought suppression. Norma buried these painful memories and attempted to proceed with her life denying their existence. These same emotional wounds later involuntarily erupted. The repressed anguish associated with her grim past surfaced like a nightmare that intruded itself into her waking life. This phase of her anxious symptoms was the most difficult and the most disorienting. She was in a sense taken by surprise. In the very early stages of her recovery she would confuse symptomatic feelings for facts. “I felt frightened,” she disclosed, “so I assumed that there must be someone conspiring against me.”
Norma conceded: “I didn’t get it at first. I recall that when my therapist suggested that my feelings about being harassed were mostly in my mind, I thought she was saying there was something wrong with me. The idea that I had mental problems was insulting.” Norma could not readily identify persecutory feelings as symptoms, however she was able to talk about, and visualize her past abuse. Talking about the experiences that wounded us provides us the opportunity to adjust to and assimilate the disappointments and the horrors. Norma’s willingness to speak and write about her suffering helped to measurably reduce her misguided shame and her guilt. She also visualized herself confronting her abuser which reordered her internal images. She replaced images of helplessness and confusion with images of personal power and order. Consequently, burying thoughts became less necessary and the suppression was slowly supplanted by acceptance and self-expression. With less self-condemnation there were less and less feelings of persecution. “I never had a major breakthrough,” Norma noted, “I adjusted my thinking a little at a time” Norma now sees how our inner life forms our outer experience. “I can now observe my defectiveness and shame schemas,” she states. “I regularly make distinctions between my symptom and myself. I don’t buy into my negative thoughts that easy any more.” Indeed, knowing that we are under the spell of our schemas provides us the option to be self led rather than symptom led.
Avoidant coping can work effectively as a short-term way of dealing with potentially overwhelming feelings. Chemicals, for example, can help us cope with painful emotions and conditions. Alcohol, sedatives and other drugs have the ability to anesthetize painful feelings and obstruct unsettling thoughts. Thus, substances can help us regulate our affective (emotional) states. Habitually anesthetizing our feelings is of course ultimately dysfunctional. However, it is important to recognize that some of us have very serious emotional wounds, and we may carry a great deal of emotional pain on a day-to-day basis. If your emotional wounds are especially painful or horrific, you are indeed more susceptible to becoming chemically dependent. From this point of view, we recognize that alcohol or drug use may be an attempt to lower anguish and promote a happier and less painful existence. It is important to recognize that avoiding pain by anesthetizing comes in several forms. Over-smoking, overeating, compulsive gambling, and sexual addictions are also attempt to anesthetize feelings. Mindfulness Based Anxiety Reduction provides an alternative method of coping with emotional pain.
Evading is a very common form of avoidance. Some people for example who have social phobia will severely limit the amount of time they spend outside the safety and privacy of their homes. This is coping through evading. Unfortunately hiding out only aggravates our unrealistic fears. Chuck, who was recovering from panic disorder and trauma, found that he was having mysterious episodes of low grade depression with his anxiety. With some investigation an avoidant coping mechanism surfaced. Chuck was living with his parents beyond the appropriate or beneficial period. Taking refuge in his parent’s home was helpful for a time. However, after a while the behavior became avoidant and aggravated his anxiety. Thus, he was becoming more fear driven by remain too long. Habitual withdrawal aggravates our phobias and anxieties. If the withdrawing behavior is not recognized, one can feel hopelessly trapped and depressed. Mindful Relinquishment of Maladjusted Coping Modes begins the exposure to being without these troublesome forms of security.
Staying Distracted as a coping strategy has positive and negative aspects. Sometimes getting out and recreating is exactly “what the doctor ordered.” Staying Distracted is another story entirely. People who habitually practice Distraction replace what has to be done with another activity. For example: “You need to find work, but end up playing chess all day. You need to address your marital issues and decide to join an expedition to Nepal. You need education but spend most of your free time in the gym.” This is how this avoidant coping style works.
The long-term use of coping through Staying Distracted, inadvertently maintains our fears. We need to “enter” our fears and our sorrows to heal up and move on. David developed a Failure Schema growing up under an overly critical father. Ironically, his father had a Failure Schema too. Schemas are often passed on through the family system. David’s misfortune was that his father did not realize the difference between anxiety led and self led behavior. David Sr. was not mindful of the fact that he was carrying an emotional wound from his past. David Sr. failed to tolerate his anxious symptoms. He thought he was averting a problem when he began to overly monitor his son. David Sr. was in fact “acting out.” His anxiety-driven behavior eventually wounded David Jr. emotionally. His father’s over-monitoring, irritability and constant criticism oppressed David to the point where he feared aspiring to any challenge. The frustration with his father became emotionally wounding. David in a sense inherited a failure schema and its consequence--disordered anxiety.
He coped with the painful feelings of being an inevitable failure by avoidance. The truth of the matter was that he was a competent and rather talented person. David was, for instance, a master chest player. However, a part of him believed that he was jinxed: “No matter what I do, or how hard I try, it never works out for me.” Though we may successfully avoid an anxious moment by doing something else, we can inadvertently aggravate the cause of our anxiety.
Thus we see that the maladjusted beliefs that were born of our misfortune act as if they want to survive, resisting our efforts to counter or avoid them. When we become reactive to them, they are sustained. Avoidant behavior that is driven by our fears validates and sustains the very thing we dread. It is by facing and entering our fear that we can break free from this mind-boggling trap. Mindfulness Based Anxiety Reduction harnesses meditation to liberate us from fixed ways of being that confound and oppress us.