When things aren’t going well, we often fall back on avoidance. It’s in our DNA to do so. Everyone who is alive today descended from ancestors who successfully survived a harsh, primitive environment. But this mechanism to avoid remains with us and seems to be counter productive when it comes to stress, loss and even despair. Therapists describe avoidance as: A maladaptive coping mechanism characterized by the effort to avoid dealing with a stressor. Coping refers to behaviors that attempt to protect oneself from psychological damage.
Limit your tendency to avoid problems to minimize their impact.
Mindfulness experts suggest that, “Openness doesn’t come from resisting your fears but from getting to know them well.”
So what can you do to manage anxiety, fear, depression, trauma? Managing acute moments of emotional pain in your life can be overwhelming. Sometimes, practicing with a simple go-to method can help firm up the ’emotional muscle memory’ so that when the worst hits, you’re prepared (or at least as close as anyone can be).
We often think of ‘getting over’ or avoiding pain. But like anything else in life, the more we resist or avoid something, the less practiced we are. To illustrate this idea think of simple phobias such as the fear of elevators or fear of spiders. The standard treatment of care involves gradual exposure to the feared stimuli (elevators, spiders); not avoidance of it. This is the gold standard for how to generally manage these otherwise debilitating fears and it’s well known in the psychological and lay communities. However, when it comes to anxiety, depression and emotional trauma, we often talk about healthy avoidance, distraction and otherwise limiting exposure. But the hard truth is that it’s nearly impossible to truly get over something unless you go THROUGH it.
The fact is, everyday is an opportunity to become a better you but it requires that you just stop ‘trying’. A modern example of this is in a scene from the original Matrix movie where Morpheus is imploring Neo to resist the urge to ‘try’ and instead trust that he can ‘be’ who he is meant to become by trusting in the process of facing his fears and perceived limitations.
What you can do in your real world experience follows a similar pattern:
(1) Notice your experience.
What is happening to you right now as you experience the painful feeling? What are the mental, emotional and physical experiences? Let yourself know how you feel right now. Stating it clearly to yourself even aloud if you choose, will help you to own your experience and prepare you to move through it.
(2) Observe the meaning of your life experience and notice your urge to judge it.
In other words, it’s perfectly normal to experience whatever you’re feeling. And in the vast scheme of things, it may actually be as meaningless as an itch behind your knee — annoying, even disappointing, but more manageable than it first appears. Observe and resist any urge to judge yourself.
Smiling or crying isn’t good or bad, it just is. Just as we can’t change the flow of waves in the ocean we shouldn’t try to change the flow of emotions. Emotions make sense. Sadness and despair might just be where you’re at. The problem is NOT the emotion, it’s whether or not you choose to judge yourself for the experience. We’re not suggesting self-pity or wallowing in the emotions or waves for that matter — as that is a recipe for ‘drowning’; rather, accept that feeling sad, angry, anxious, desperate or otherwise, is simply a symptom of where you’re at. It’s normal and at some level, it’s actually a beautiful part of being a human. You’d unlikely think of staring at a paper-cut or skinned-knee and judging yourself. Why judge yourself now?
(4) Go to 1.
Like a computer loop, you’ll likely need to return to Step 1 over and over again. Too often when trying new approaches we think we failed because the approach hasn’t worked. While there’s no guarantee it will, there IS a guarantee that the alternative (avoidance) will not. There are countless stories of musicians, and artists who ultimately were able to make a career out of their art not because they were any better than the next person, but because they kept at it — sometimes for decades. Similarly, this is not a quick fix, but a life long process that you can start today.
Keep the following in mind:
There is no doubt that certain things make acceptance of self difficult. But with these too, the antidote is to ‘give yourself a break’, resist judging yourself and practice acceptance:
- childhood/adult trauma
- low blood sugar
- acute or chronic illness
- oppression (racial, cultural and religious)
A wise person once said, “Your experience is as real AND as unsolvable as a tree. It doesn’t define you, it’s merely something you’re experiencing.” Once you accept that, it actually begins to feel solvable.