What Are the Symptoms of Experiential Avoidance Disorder?

June 27, 2019
What are the symptoms of experiential avoidance disorder? How can we get a better hold on our emotions? Discover all this and more in this fascinating article!

Maybe you’re a person who flees from your own negative thoughts and feelings for fear of the pain they may cause you. These are symptoms of experiential avoidance disorder, and, in this article, we’ll tell you what you can do to avoid it.

We live in a “happiness culture”, in which we’re expected to be happy at all costs, whatever the situation. The problem is that when we don’t achieve that state, then we feel frustrated. This, in turn, makes us even unhappier and disturbs us greatly.

Happiness Isn’t Permanent

The truth is that happiness, or our emotional well-being, is never permanent. We can’t say to ourselves “I’m happy” because that’s simply just not true.

Happiness isn’t a way of life, but rather a state. It’s much more sensible to say to ourselves “Sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m not”. Emotions come and go, depending on many different variables.

Trying to be permanently emotionally well is a fantasy that plunges us even deeper into suffering. For example, when we avoid feeling anxious, sad, or in pain, then we actually double our discomfort. The pressure we exert on ourselves when we say: “I must be well” or “I must be happy” is the perfect way for us NOT to feel at ease. It’s a paradox, but all emotional avoidance inevitably leads to an increase in those same emotions.

A sad woman lying down.

Imagine that you’re in the middle of the ocean on top of a raft surrounded by sharks. Someone says to you: “If you feel scared, then you’ll fall into the sea with the sharks. Thus, you shouldn’t get scared”. What do you think will happen? Surely, that will make you even more nervous! It wouldn’t be at all natural to inhibit anxiety in such a circumstance!

That’s why it’s much more normal to accept that, in this context, the most logical thing is that we will experience anxiety and fear. We should let that anxiety and fear show itself and get used to it if at all possible.

Experiential avoidance disorder is, quite simply, a tendency to want to constantly prioritize feeling good. People will act in such a way as to try to achieve an immediate feeling of well-being. We’ll explain it in more detail here:

What Are the Symptoms of Experiential Avoidance Disorder?

By using acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), traditional diagnostic classification systems are rejected. At the same time, experts consider that our behavior in individual situations is the only element that should be analyzed and acted upon. By using this therapy, we can diagnose the psychopathology that we’re discussing today – the so-called experiential avoidance disorder.

Experiential avoidance is an inflexible behavioral pattern. It comes about due to an ineffective verbal regulation, which means that we attempt to avoid suffering at all costs. It’s all about controlling the things that happen to us, along with the sensations, the feelings and the circumstances that they create.

People try to completely control every single situation. Sometimes this will be through anxiety pills or alcohol. However, any other form of avoidance that goes against our personal values will lead us directly into a trap of never-ending discomfort.

A Rejection of Negative Feelings

What happens is that the person with symptoms of experiential avoidance disorder systematically rejects all negative feelings. He doesn’t want to experience them or feel them under any circumstances. He says to himself things such as: “Feeling negative emotions is terrible and painful”, “I have to always be happy”, “I can’t feel sad”, or “What will others think if they see that I’m worried?” The list goes on…

All these thoughts lead the person to try to control their negative emotions in whatever way they can. They look for any type of “escape” that’s quick, easy, and effective in the short term. The problem is that emotional control is ephemeral. After a short time, the emotional discomfort reappears, and often more intense.

A woman controlling her thoughts.

Therefore, what the person with experiential avoidance does is “put band-aids” on their emotions so that they don’t show how they’re truly feeling. At first, it seems to work, but, eventually, the band-aid ends up falling off. As a result, the emotions will actually come to light more intensely.

What Can I Do if I Suffer from Experiential Avoidance Disorder?

When someone suffers from experiential avoidance disorder and wants to get out of its never-ending cycles, then you need to instill in them the idea that suffering is a part of life. It’s not that we want to suffer. It’s simply accepting the fact that emotional discomfort is something that can happen to anyone, for the simple fact that they’re alive.

Life brings good times and bad times. It’s normal to experience different types of emotions during these times.

For example, it isn’t logical to look for another partner in order not to feel bad or alone if your significant other left you. The healthy thing to do is to experience the grief that these types of losses bring. This is our brain’s way of assimilating what has happened and enables it to learn for the future.

If we’re using things in our lives such as artificial “crutches” or “band-aids” or doing anything just to avoid suffering in the short term, then the only thing we’re going to achieve is to bury that pain deeper and end up increasing our suffering in the long run.

We Must Embrace Our Demons

Therefore, to fight the symptoms of experiential avoidance disorder, we have to embrace our demons. We must face our emotions and feelings, whatever they may be, and be willing to live with them and through them.

We know that anxiety or deep sadness aren’t pleasant emotions, and we would prefer not to have to experience them. However, it’s also true that life doesn’t always go as we want it to. Inevitably, there will be times when we’ll have to experience them.

A good way to start would be by saying to yourself: “Today, I’m feeling anxious, but it doesn’t matter; anxiety isn’t bad, it’s just unpleasant” or “I’ll embrace my sadness today and I’ll live with it. I don’t like it, but it won’t kill me”. These kinds of thoughts are much more realistic and functional.

Head Towards Your Goals

It’s also important to know what our values ​​and goals are in life and to advance towards them, regardless of the emotions we may be feeling. Emotions don’t have to limit us. It’s one thing to live with them and feel them when something happens to us, but something totally different when they control us.

Emotions, whether they be positive or negative, can accompany us in our day to day lives in the same way that a headache or a cold can, or even the bad news that we see or hear about. Because of that, if we know what we want from our lives in the medium or long term, then let us work towards that. Let’s not get bogged down by the momentary discomfort we may be feeling.

Walk towards your goals every day, whatever they may be. Only you can choose them. Let all your emotions, even negative thoughts, go with you. The moment you make space for them and learn to live with them, the sooner they’ll stop controlling your life. They may even leave you for good.

  • Ruiz, M.A., Díaz, M. I., Villalobos, A. (2012). Manual de Técnicas de Intervención Cognitivo Conductuales. Desclée De Brouwer, S.A