Why People With PTSD Use Emotional Avoidance to Cope

Avoidance may work in the short-term but can cause more problems later

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PTSD and emotional avoidance go hand-in-hand. Many people with PTSD try to escape their emotions. This is part of the avoidance cluster of PTSD symptoms.

Avoidance refers to any action designed in preventing an uncomfortable emotion from occurring, such as fear, sadness or shame. For example, a person may try to avoid an emotion through the use of substances or dissociation.

Emotional avoidance is often considered an unhealthy coping strategy.

It may be effective in the short-run and provide some temporary relief. However, in the long run, the emotions people are trying to avoid may actually grow stronger. That is, unless dealt with, those emotions don't really go away.

Emotional avoidance is a common unhealthy coping strategy used by people with PTSD.

Which Behaviors Belong to the Avoidance Cluster 

Specifically, the avoidance cluster of PTSD symptoms include attempting to avoid thoughts, feelings or conversations about the traumatic event, and places or people bring the event to mind. Avoidance also refers to difficulty remembering important parts of the traumatic event and feeling as though life has been cut short.

Moreover, people experiencing avoidance may have emotional numbing symptoms such as feeling distant from others, losing interest in activities they used to enjoy or having trouble experiencing positive feelings such as happiness or love.

 

The first symptom includes avoiding emotional experience, which is common among people with PTSD.

Emotional Avoidance in PTSD

It has been found that people with PTSD often try to avoid or “push away” their emotions, both emotions about a traumatic experience and emotions in general. Studies have found that people with PTSD may withhold expressing emotions.

In addition, it has been found that avoiding emotions may make some PTSD symptoms worse or even contribute to developing PTSD symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event.

Why Emotional Avoidance Does Not Work

It is important to recognize that we have emotions for a reason. Our emotions provide us with information about ourselves and the things going on around us. For example, the emotion of fear tells us that we may be in danger. The emotion of sadness tells us that we may need some time to take care of ourselves or seek help from others. Given the important role they play in our lives, our emotions are there to be experienced and they want to be experienced.

Therefore, while emotional avoidance may be effective in the short-run and may provide you with some temporary relief in the long run, the emotions you're trying to avoid may grow stronger. Basically, your emotions may “fight back,” so they can be experienced and listened to. If someone is determined to avoid his emotions, he may then turn to more drastic and unhealthy ways of avoiding emotions, such as through substance use.

Avoiding our emotions also takes considerable effort, especially when those emotions are strong (as they often are in PTSD). As avoided emotions grow stronger, more and more effort is needed to keep them at bay. As a result, little energy may be left for the important things in your life, such as family and friends. In addition, using all your energy to avoid certain emotions may make it difficult to manage other experiences, such as frustration and irritation, making you more likely to be “on edge” and angry.

What Can Be Done

The most important thing to do is to reduce the extent to which you try to escape your emotions. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done. If you have been avoiding your emotions for a long time, it may be difficult to release them. Sometimes, when we let our emotions build up, they may escape all at once, like a dam breaking. This may lead to our emotions feeling out of control.

It is important to find ways to release your emotions. Therapy of all kinds can be very helpful in this regard. Cognitive-behavioral and psychoanalytic/psychodynamic therapies all give you the opportunity to express and understand your emotions, as well as examine the sources of those emotional responses.

In addition to examining emotions connected directly to the traumatic event, cognitive-behavioral approaches may address how certain thoughts or ways of evaluating a situation may be contributing to your emotions. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT), a particular type of behavior therapy, focuses on breaking down avoidance and helping a person place his energy into living a meaningful life (and being willing to experience whatever emotions arise as a result). Psychoanalytic/psychodynamic approaches focus more on early childhood experiences and their influence on your emotions.

Whichever therapy you choose, getting help can provide you with a safe place to express and approach your emotions. Seeking social support from trusted loved ones can also provide a safe way to express your emotions. Finally, writing about your feelings can also give you a safe and private way to release your deepest feelings.

Wrapping Up

If your emotions feel really unclear or unpredictable, self-monitoring may be a useful strategy for you. It can give you a sense of which situations bring out certain thoughts and feelings. Finally, if your emotions feel too strong, try distraction instead of avoidance. Distraction can be viewed as “temporary avoidance.”

Do something to temporarily distract you from a strong emotion, such as reading a book, calling a friend, eating comforting food or taking a bath. This may give the emotion some time to decrease in strength, making it easier to cope with.

Sources:

Hayes, S.C., Luoma, J.B., Bond, F.W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1-25. Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D., Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Roemer, L., Litz, B. T., Orsillo, S. M. & Wagner, A. (2001). A preliminary investigation of the role of strategic withholding of emotion in PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 14, 149-156.

Salters-Pedneault, K., Tull, M.T., & Roemer, L. (2004). The role of avoidance of emotional material in the anxiety disorders.

Applied and Preventive Psychology, 11, 95-114.

Tull, M.T., Gratz, K.L., Salters, K., & Roemer, L. (2004). The role of experiential avoidance in post-traumatic stress symptoms and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and somatization. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 192, 754-761.

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