Avoidance and Sharks
Imagine this for a moment — that I have you hooked up to monitors that measure your anxiety. They can tell when your anxiety increases with perfect precision. You also happen to be strapped to a chair sitting on a trapdoor over a shark tank filled with very hungry sharks.
You’re perfectly safe at the moment, but then I come in and tell you, “Look, you’re perfectly safe right now, but if you get to a level 6 of anxiety, I’m going to have to drop you into the shark tank. So just don’t get anxious, and you’ll be fine.” So you try your hardest to not get anxious.
You try to force yourself to not be anxious, and I can constantly say “helpful” things like, “Remember, don’t get anxious!” The more internal and external pressure about your anxiety, the worse it gets. As you see your anxiety creeping up on the scale from a 4 to a 5, the pressure mounts. You worry about what will happen if you get there. And before you know it, your anxiety is shooting through the roof and click-drop-splash!
Now folks, I wouldn’t do this to you. This is just an analogy — but many people do this to themselves.
Many people with anxiety, chronic pain, panic disorders, depression, tinnitus, vaginismus, muscle tension, and strong emotions in general often experience something like this frequently. The harder you try to not feel anxious, or the more you worry about and pay attention to your chronic pain or tinnitus, the worse it gets.
When we fight and struggle against our thoughts and emotions, we tend to make things worse.
In skill #5, you’re going to learn how to tell if you’re making your emotions or sensations worse. And in the next two sections (skill #6 and skill #7), you’re going to learn how to escape that cycle, how to get better at feeling so you can resolve really intense emotions and feel more peace and happiness in your life.
My Panic Attack
OK, just so you know, I’ve been there in the past; I’ve had a couple of anxiety attacks. One of them was when I lived in Argentina. And I had been under a lot of stress overall, but everything seemed fine. I was just going about my day when all the sudden I started feeling shaky and sick.
I started to worry, “What’s the matter with me?” And then I started to feel shakier and sicker. Then I started to worry about how this was going to mess up my day. We had a lot of important appointments. What if I wasn’t going to be able to get to them because of how I was feeling?
Pretty soon I was sucked into waves of anxiety, and every wave was worse than the last. I was trying my best to make myself calm down, but everything I did made it worse. Eventually I had to call a friend over to help me. When he came over, we talked for a while, and he was gentle and comforting. I took a break and eventually calmed down, and when I did, all the nausea and sick feelings went away.
Turns out I wasn’t sick — it was all the stress, anxiety, and fear that was causing that sick feeling. But the harder I tried to make it go away, the worse it got.
This is one of the real paradoxes of emotions; there’s a lot we can do indirectly to change how we feel, a lot you can do to get feeling better overall in life, but if we try to stuff our emotions or force our emotions to change in the moment, we often make things worse in the long run.
This can be hard to see, because for many people, the only emotional skills they were taught were things like get over it or try to look on the bright side or relax or try not to think about it. Maybe as a child you were taught that it’s not ok to cry or to feel sad or angry, and to be honest, putting an emotion to the side for a while in order to complete an important task is a really helpful skill in the short term.
So, for example, think of a police officer who responds to help at a horrible car crash. They need to be able to focus and perform their task in the moment and push their emotions to the side for a moment. That’s an effective short-term strategy, but if that’s their only strategy, then over time those emotions are going to build and build.
Many police officers are really good at suppressing their emotions, but when they do this, in the long run, it can lead to higher rates of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide. Emotional suppression isn’t an effective long-term strategy because emotions beg to be processed and resolved, and they do this by popping up over and over again. Most people have simply not been taught other ways to work through emotions.
For that officer, he or she would need to add the skill of processing through the emotions later so those suppressed feelings of stress and anxiety can get resolved.
Avoidance in the Long Term
The problem is that our instinct is to avoid things that are uncomfortable. Avoidance of, or struggle with, our emotions is one of the most common responses people have. It’s like we just want them to go away so that we can get on with our lives. We try to brush them aside as quickly as possible.
In my therapy practice, I frequently see people trying all sorts of things to make their emotions go away. On a micro level it’s just little things like trying not to think about emotions or spending a lot of time distracting yourself, but since those aren’t sustainable long-term practices, people end up needing more to suppress their emotions.
Things like drug and alcohol use, shopping addictions, overeating, using sex to escape (pornography addiction, unhealthy relationships), gambling, media addictions, avoiding people and/or places, or procrastination.
There are also some other, less obvious forms of avoidance like letting your dreams die or keeping them small; blame; anger; and defensiveness. Another big one is foreclosure: making decisions without considering the options, just jumping to conclusions and deciding or acting impulsively to make a problem go away.
But what do you notice about all these strategies? Do these make life better? All of these attempts at avoidance lead to more, not fewer, problems in the future.
Take a minute right now and get into your workbook and take the survey about avoidance.
What are some of the things you do to escape or avoid emotions and thoughts? Do you use distractions? Do you choose to skip activities or avoid places? How about substances or addictive behavior?
How well are those working? Any negative side effects? Even if they aren’t immediately harmful, like Netflix marathons instead of heroin, what are they keeping you from?
In the long run, struggling with or avoiding emotions makes them more intense; it usually makes them worse.
Tug of War Metaphor
Are you tired of metaphors yet? When the only skills you have are things like resist, suppress, try not to feel that way, etc., it’s like you’re in a tug of war with a monster, a struggle for your life, and you’re using all your strength to keep from being pulled into the great chasm between you and the monster.
You’re afraid that if you don’t fight your depression or anxiety that it will pull you into a pit of despair. But it’s exhausting to be stuck fighting your feelings.
In the next couple of videos (and throughout this course), I’m going to teach you some counterintuitive skills that will help you drop the rope and drop the struggle with your emotions. You can overcome depression and anxiety, but in this section we’re just going to focus on identifying ways that you might be making your anxiety or whatever worse by struggling with it.
7 Signs You’re Stuck in the Tug of War
1. You Judge Emotions as Good or Bad
You tell yourself that sadness and anxiety are bad emotions and that happiness is the only acceptable emotion. You think that because an emotion is uncomfortable, it’s a negative thing that just needs to be escaped or avoided.
Also, sneak peek into the course, sometimes painful emotions do need to be resolved, but all primary emotions serve a function. And when we judge our emotions, we don’t help ourselves process through them. For example, healthy guilt helps us make repairs when we’ve messed up. Healthy fear can keep us from falling off of cliffs.
Just because an emotion is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s bad. “Among mindfulness characteristics, a judgmental attitude towards one’s thoughts and feelings is the strongest predictor of both depression and anxiety.”
2. You’re Stuffing
You’re clenching, trying not to cry, trying not to feel it, numbing, and zoning, or you do what you can to avoid an emotional situation or distract yourself and wait for it to pass.
These are perfectly fine reactions for the short term, but if you try to use them over and over, then they don’t work in the long run. With muscle tension, anxiety, nausea — all these attempts to stuff your feelings can actually make them worse.
I worked with a client in the past who, every time he got sad or stressed in session, he would clench his face tightly, trying to force the tears not to come, trying not to let the emotions get too strong. And this ended up triggering panic attacks over and over.
He was triggered by having emotions. His habitual reaction was to fight them, and this led to a cycle of panicking over and over. And the harder he fought this hopeless battle to not have feelings, the more depressed he felt. When he started to learn to be gentle with himself and open to his emotions, the panic attacks and depression greatly decreased.
3. You’re Negotiating
When strong emotions come up, you plead with the universe: “Why? Why is this happening to me? This is so unfair!” Maybe you get stuck worrying about the future: “What if this lasts forever?” or say something like “I can’t handle feeling this way!”
There is a time and a place to explore these questions. There may be some underlying causes to what you’re feeling. But if this is something you do regularly, you know that it almost always leads to despair instead of helpful action.
It’s as if you’re trying to plead before the universe that it’s not fair, and then hoping that the universe will then say, “Oh yeah, you’re right, this isn’t fair; I’ll magic it away.”
As a reminder, a mental health diagnosis like depression does not tell you the cause, it doesn’t tell you that it’s permanent, it doesn’t tell you anything other than “These are the symptoms that you’re experiencing, and they meet the criteria for depression.” It’s more helpful to explore one skill you can learn, like letting go of the struggle, than it is to spend a lot of time pleading with the universe to magic these feelings away.
4. You’re Shaming Yourself
You say “I shouldn’t…” a lot: “I shouldn’t feel this way; I should be happier.” It’s the feeling of trying to force it that often leads to hopelessness. Shaming yourself is like banging your head against a wall and hoping it helps. Saying “I shouldn’t feel sad” often makes people feel sadder, and saying “I shouldn’t feel anxious” makes people feel hopeless or more anxious.
That doesn’t men that you are going to feel this way forever. There’s a whole lot you can do to actually get feeling better. It’s just that shaming yourself gets you stuck in the cycle of struggling against your emotions, which makes things worse.
5. You’re Catastrophizing
With every little symptom, you assume the worst. If you feel a little pain, you think “What if there’s something wrong with me?” Or “Does this mean I’ve got cancer?” Maybe you start to hear tinnitus, and you think “Oh no! What if my tinnitus is really bad today?” Or you start to feel a little anxiety, and you think “This is terrible. I can’t function at work with anxiety!”
Catastrophizing exaggerates every emotion you have. In the next skill, you’re going to learn all about willingness, the skill of feeling what you’re feeling without freaking out about it.
6. You're Checking
You’re constantly checking your symptoms: “How’s my anxiety going to be today?” You are the CEO of your brain. What you pay attention to tells your brain what is most important and what you get more of.
When you hyperfocus on the pain point or on uncomfortable emotions, when that’s what you think about or talk about or ruminate on, you tell your brain that sadness or tinnitus or anxiety is the most important thing to you, so your brain complies by making more of it.
Joey Remenyi, who helps people heal from tinnitus and vertigo, says, “I know that people have healed when they stop describing their sensations as symptoms. When an uncomfortable sensation or emotion pops up, you notice it, acknowledge it, and validate it, and then gently redirect your attention to what’s most important to you in that moment.” What you pay attention to you get more of.
7. You’re Distracting
Always keeping busy, never slowing down, spending too much time on your phone, procrastinating important things because you just don’t want to face them. There’s a quick test for this. If you stop moving, if you sit still for a minute, and that makes you feel worse, then you’re probably stuck in distraction.
This is like running away from an imaginary monster. You think you have to keep running so that it doesn’t catch you, but I promise if you sit and let it catch you, you’ll find that you can handle it, and that it’s better than running all the time.
You’re not bad, you just need some other tools. There’s a reason you’re gripping! The people I know with anxiety and depression aren’t lazy; they’re often desperately trying every skill they know to keep from getting pulled off the cliff of their anxiety or depression.
The problem is not lack of effort. In the tug of war, you’re afraid that if you stop struggling, you’ll fall in. You’re afraid that if you don’t keep doing it, you’ll fall into deep despair, you’ll fall apart, or you’ll stop functioning. But the struggle takes so much energy. I’m not saying quit trying; I’m saying drop the rope and try something different.
In the next section, I’ll teach you the practical skills to drop the rope — practical skills that will let you step away from the drama, the struggle, the fight with your feelings, and move toward a life of peace and meaning and freaking joy!
There are at least two antidotes to the struggle: emotion processing and willingness, which is a key to emotion processing. In my emotion processing course, you’re going to learn dozens of skills to manage intense emotions, work through them, and resolve them. So let’s do this!