What do they avoid, or attempt to avoid?
- Unpleasant thoughts or feelings.
- What they consider to be unacceptable thoughts.
- Situations and stimuli which make them feel uncomfortable.
- New experiences which might cause some tension in them.
- very strict, straightjacketed ways of thinking
- substituting one feeling for another
- high stimulation activities
- staying constantly busy
While not all of these are bad in themselves (high stimulation activities such as skydiving are sometimes positive in themselves), taken to an extreme they suggest that the person is trying to avoid something.
I work with my clients to truly encounter their lives. However, recently, working with my jazz piano teacher, I realized that I was rushing through exercises. And by rushing through them, I was not getting the learning out of them which I could.
Some psychologists would go further, and would say that experiential avoidance is one of the root causes of human suffering. (This was be true of therapists in the school called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; however, it was also true of the older school called Getstalt Therapy.)
My clients might find this hard to believe. They might point to the fact that they ARE experiencing depression, in fact too much of it. Or they ARE experiencing too much anxiety. They might say that they are not experiencing too little feeling but too much.
The paradox would be resolved by the idea that anxiety or depression may be the result of not really encountering or digesting the original feeling. If something is digested, everything tends to work out alright. However, if we are not digesting something, then bad things happen. In the same way, if we encounter life's experiences one by one, and deal upfront with each one by one, then they tend to get digested, absorbed, and so on. We learn from them. We solve problems. We can even desensitize to certain types of negative situations. But when we avoid feelings and situations, we can't do any of these, and things just go from bad to worse.
Another way to think of this is that there are primary feelings and secondary feelings. A primary feeling might be the hurt of someone breaking up with us. We might feel sadness and anger. If we allow ourselves to feel those feelings, then they have a good chance of getting digested, and we can go on. If we do not deal with those primary feelings, then we may be left with a residue which is not directly attached to any particular situation, a residue of depression or anxiety which is more free floating, and which tends to linger and stay on. It tends to linger because we are not fully aware of what is causing it or how to solve it. It may be a free floating residue.
Or here is another way of thinking of it. If we deal with situations and feelings up front, then our stress levels may decrease, and any underlying genetic biological tendency towards a mental disorder may not be triggered.
Now, I don't want to claim that it is always easy to face our situations and feelings. Sometimes we may need professional help if situational stress is overwhelming to us. BUT, I do believe that it always better (with help or without help) to face issues and try to solve them within a reasonable period of time. Feelings can be faced but not exactly SOLVED. We can't solve a feeling. But by facing it, it will often go away.
That doesn't mean that it hurts anything to go home at night and have a glass of wine, saying to yourself that you will tackle the problem tomorrow (assuming you are not an alcoholic). That is avoidance, yes, but very temporary avoidance. We do not have to tackle problems 24/7. But if we put off dealing with problems day after day, then that is when the problem and feelings we face may transform themselves into something even worse.