An overview of Experiential Avoidance

We use the term experiential avoidance rather than simply avoidance to remind ourselves of how we avoid both ourselves and the world around us. Situational avoidance is usually easy to identify. Also, many anxiety sufferers don’t avoid situations. Still, anxiety is always maintained by avoidance. We all avoid thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, and urges with varying degrees of intensity and rigidity. This month we’ll discuss the subtleties of experiential avoidances and help you try out more flexible responses.

Any good discussion of avoidance should start with action. Tell me what you want to move towards and I can help you stop moving away. Every week in Community Time and in Group, you make commitments to behaviors that enhance your functioning and/or improve your relationship with your anxiety.

By making public commitments to behavior, you are taking the philosophical stance that you can change. You believe that attempting to change in an intentional way is a worthy goal. The commitments that you make are process commitments, not outcome commitments. You commit to studying, not acing a test. You commit to showing up to work, not performing perfectly at work. You commit to initiating a conversation, not having the best conversation of your life. In some ways, it is common sense to commit to a process, not an outcome. You can’t control your outcomes; you can control your process. And yet, you may be making outcome goals that constantly feel elusive to you. To achieve a sense of efficacy and mastery, commit to processes that lead you towards your goals and relax into those processes.

So, then, to what process should you commit? I love David Brooks’ definition of a commitment. He says, “making a commitment simply means falling in love with something, and then building a structure of behavior around it that will carry you when your love falters.”

Catch you in Group to discuss falling in love. For now, let’s invite anxiety to guide us towards surrender and teach how to create structure around a process-based goal. If your goal is to cultivate a more effective relationship with your anxiety, your process can include any behavior that gives you the opportunity to practice going towards and accepting anxiety.

Use these steps to structure your reflection on your values and goals.
You can use these steps for any goal. Let’s walk the example of anxiety together.

1. Identify your goal: My goal is to reduce my anxiety long-term. Since anxiety is maintained by avoidance of it, to achieve my goal of reducing my anxiety, I’ll need a goal of a non-avoidant and accepting relationship with my anxiety.

2. Identify the values needed to achieve your goal: The values I need to relate to my anxiety with acceptance are curiosity, compassion, and courage.

3. Create a process that provides the structure to live out your values: 

  • Processes that cultivate curiosity about anxiety include education, self-monitoring, sharing my anxious experiences and listening to the anxious experiences of others.
  • Processes that cultivate compassion towards anxiety includes treating myself with kindness, noticing my common humanity with others, and mindfulness practices.
  • Processes that cultivate courage in the face of anxiety include committing to anxiety-provoking situations, gamifying my experience, and sharing my commitments with others.

4. Commit to the behaviors that embody your valued-based process. The types of behavioral commitments that could embody the processes above could include:

  • Reading and becoming more educated about anxiety.
  • Attending individual and/or group therapy.
  • Commitments to a willing attitude during anxiety-provoking everyday life situations.
  • Commitments to exposure to anxiety-provoking experiences that are beyond what everyday life demands of me.
  • Commitments to refraining from avoidance behaviors.
  • Yoga, meditation, prayer or other practices that orient me towards kindness, present moment awareness, and connection with the rest of humanity.