How avoiding your pain sinks you deeper into anxiety and depression…without you knowing it
Some might say that as a result of our evolutionary make up we are wired to try and avoid uncomfortable or threatening situations. If a ravenous lion is running after us, we're likely to try and flee that situation. However, when it comes to our uncomfortable emotions (e.g. fear, sadness, anger, shame, etc) that very response may serve to keep us stuck in a cycle of depression and/or anxiety.
A few years ago, some Psychologists conducted a study where college students had to try and guide a paper mouse through a maze. There were two different versions of this. The first group had a positive and approach-oriented setup where they had to complete the maze to get the reward of cheese at the end. The second group had a negative and avoidance-oriented setup where they had to complete the maze to avoid getting caught by an owl.
While both groups finished the maze in the same amount of time, the after effects on the college students were drastically different. On a test of creativity, the second group who had to avoid the owl scored 50% lower than the first group who had to approach their cheese. The avoidance group also had lingering feelings of caution, avoidance, and negative concerns for things going wrong. This study has profound effects for us in our everyday lives and how we habitually relate to our feelings. For many of us, uncomfortable emotions can not only be unpleasant, but threatening. In turn, we find a myriad of ways to avoid discomfort. Some of us may turn to being distracted by work or the internet, others may delve into drugs and alcohol, while some may simply become numb not knowing how to experience emotion.
What this study shows us that two people could be having the same emotion, but the way they choose to relate to it has a dramatic influence on their level of flexibility and creativity to respond in the following moments of the their lives. In other words, acting in a state of avoidance, even if the threat is not real, closes down flexibility and creativity to respond to a challenge. This then creates a cycle where we feel more stuck and before we know it, the situation seems hopeless, which is a cornerstone of depression.
Try this to begin dipping your toes in feeling from time to time:
At any point throughout the day, check in with yourself asking, how am I feeling right now? If an emotion doesn't come to mind, actually observe and describe the physical sensations of how your body is feeling. To start approaching instead of avoiding, it's as simple as that. Try and do this a couple times a day. Put it in your calendar to remind you.
As you do this in your everyday life, you will become more able to do this during more difficult situations. In those situations, see if you can notice yourself falling into old patterns of avoiding your discomfort. When you are aware of this, once again, pause, and then bring your attention to whatever you are feeling there. If you can't name the emotion, just bring attention to the physical feelings of discomfort as they reside in the body. This begins the process of changing old patterns of avoidance and reinforcing new patterns of welcoming and approach which will make you more able to see new solutions in the future.
As always, please share what comes up for you as you read this blog or your own experiences with an approach like this. We all have wisdom to share with one another.