Cognitive Avoidance

Cognitive avoidance occurs when you use problematic thinking to avoid feeling or to avoid effective thinking. I’m not referring to avoiding thinking altogether. In fact, your mind might be racing when you are engaged in cognitive avoidance. I’m referring to the types of problematic thinking (that is, unproductive worry, mental compulsions, and rumination) that create distance from feelings and prevents you from effective thinking (that is, problem-solving).

Worry can occur when you have the feeling of uncertainty about an unanswerable question and you try to make the uncertainty dissipate by answering the question.
Worry is productive when the question is answerable and the attempts to answer it result in problem-solving. Worry is unproductive when the question is unanswerable and the attempts to answer it create more questions, plus worry about worry (that is, “what if I can’t stop worrying?”).

We’ll discuss this type of unproductive worry, called process-driven worry, as well as process-driven rumination and mental compulsions in greater detail during the weeks that focus on repetitive negative thinking.

Functional cognitive avoidance (including unproductive worry, rumination, and mental compulsions) starts out as an attempt to answer uncertainty, to problem solve, or to understand something from the past when you experience uncomfortable feelings. Then, you get used to worrying or ruminating when you feel those uncomfortable feelings. Worrying and rumination in response to uncomfortable feelings begin to function as a way to avoid those feelings. Worrying and rumination then become habitual so quickly that you don’t even realize that you are avoiding your feelings.

Remember that we are always trying to find the function of a particular thought or behavior and how it relates to suffering. For instance, the function of hand washing is typically to reduce the uncertainty about the potential for being contaminated. The consequence of the behavior is that it reduces anxiety momentarily, but then primes the mind to feel anxious under similar circumstances in the future and reinforces the urge to engage in the same behavior again in the long-run.

Hopefully, by now, you can observe the function of cognitive avoidance in yourself without shame or guilt. It isn’t some type of weakness or failure. It’s just a functional behavioral pattern. That said, some behavioral patterns cause more suffering than others and thus, striving to bring awareness to and changing behavioral patterns that cause you suffering is a worthy goal.

Worry and rumination as a developmental cognitive avoidance strategy

Let’s add some context to the way cognitive avoidance may have started as a functional thinking strategy to avoid uncomfortable feelings and then became a habit that distances you from your feelings.

Although anxiety disorders are the result of biological and cognitive vulnerabilities that can occur without any traumatic history, many anxious sufferers do in fact have traumatic childhoods. One form of childhood trauma is a chronic lack of emotional attunement. When you don’t feel seen, understood, and safe to share what you’re experiencing while growing up, you are vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed by your internal life and painfully alone to handle it.

If your attempts at coping with your feelings were too rigidly over-controlled or impulsively under-controlled or some combination of both, you probably developed a chronic sense of helplessness or hopelessness about it. Then, you probably felt shame, anger, and/or resentment that you were left alone to fend for yourself. This sometimes happens even if you were surrounded by what seemed like a warm and supportive family and/or a privileged lifestyle. That’s often more confusing. The key here is the emotional attunement.

Did your parents or some other important adult in your life understand you and help you feel efficacious with your inner life while you grew up?
Did they mostly provide you with safety, space, and support while you learned what you were feeling?
Did they teach you skills to cope with your feelings over time?
Did the important adults allow you to see and understand them in an age-appropriate way?
Did their self-disclosures make you feel close to them without burdening you with adult concerns?
Were you made to feel worthy of their time and attention?

If your answers to the questions above are mostly no or definitely no, I hope you have a sense of compassion for your childhood and adolescent sense. The task of growing up is a tough one and you deserved more safety, support, and guidance than you received.

Under conditions like these, cognitive avoidance is so reasonable, and yet so painful. When you didn’t feel safe, you probably started to worry about the uncertainties of the future or ruminate about something painful from the past. If you weren’t emotionally safe on a chronic basis, then that worry or rumination likely became a habitual thinking pattern. When you’re in your head, thinking, you are not in your body, feeling. The painful uncertainty, fear, loneliness, anger, and shame wasn’t as physiologically painful as long as you were in your head “figuring it out.”

Just because it’s reasonable doesn’t mean it’s helpful. I hope you’re in the process of developing a compassionate narrative of what your avoidance behaviors are and how they developed. As that narrative becomes clearer, I hope it then helps you see that you have more flexible options in adulthood. These days, you don’t have to worry when you feel unsafe or uncertain. You don’t have to ruminate when you feel lonely. These feelings are just feelings and you are not trapped in them forever. If you bring your adult awareness to them and respond to them as feelings — rather than threats, facts, or predictions — you will gain a sense of mastery and efficacy over your internal world and you won’t have to be afraid when those feelings show up.

Worry and rumination as a cognitive avoidance created by a mental health disorder

If you feel like you were mostly seen, understood, and made to feel worthy in the eyes of important adults while growing up, you might have developed a functional habit of cognitive avoidance because of your biological vulnerabilities.

Anxiety disorders, mood disorders, ADHD, substance use and addictive disorders, and eating disorders are all conditions where sufferers have the desire to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, and urges and they often avoid all of the above through worrying or ruminating.

Changing your problematic functional thinking patterns

Now that you’ve become aware of the functional behavioral pattern of cognitive avoidance that occurs in your thinking overall, your task is notice when it is occurring in the present moment. Like the rest of our work, we are striving to become educated about the patterns, notice and label them at the moment, and try a new, more flexible option. In this case, the new, flexible behavior is to stay present with your feelings and/or shift to problem-solving rather than engaging in cognitive avoidance.

Here are some questions for reflection:

  • Which cognitive avoidance strategies do you engage in most frequently?
  • What external and internal circumstances trigger cognitive avoidance for you?
  • What feelings are most commonly occurring when you start cognitive avoidance (examples: anger, loneliness, guilt, anxiety, uncertainty, sadness, loss, envy)?
  • What can you do differently the next time cognitive avoidance occurs?