Why Experiential Avoidance Seems Like a Good Idea

Most of us do this kind of emotional side step, at least occasionally. Maybe, like Melanie, you feel skittish on airplanes, so you take the train instead. In the realm of physical objects, dodging situations associated with pain is a wonderfully effective strategy; it keeps us from pawing hot stovetops, swallowing tacks, and so on. Shouldn't the same logic apply to psychological suffering? According to Hayes, it doesn't. Experiential avoidance usually increases the hurt it is meant to eliminate.

Consider Melanie, who, quite understandably, wanted to steer clear of the awful sensation of being afraid. Every time she withdrew from a scary activity, she got a short-term hit of relief. But the calm didn't last. Soon fear would invade the place to which Melanie had retreated—for example, she felt much better driving than flying for a little while, but it wasn't long before she was as petrified in cars as airplanes. Drugs calmed her at first, but soon she became terrified of losing her supply. By the time we met, her determination to bypass anything scary had trapped her in a life completely shaped by fear.

The reason this happens, according to Hayes and other devotees of relational frame theory, is that Melanie's brain works through forming connections and associations. So does yours. Your verbal mind is one big connection generator. Try this: Pick two unrelated objects that happen to be near you. Next answer this question: How are they alike? For instance, if the objects are a book and a shoe, you might say they're alike because they both helped you get a job (by being educated and dressing well). Ta-da! Your book, your shoe, and your job are linked by a new neural connection in your brain. Now you're more likely to think of all these things when you think of any given one.

This means that every time you avoid an event or activity because it's painful, you automatically connect the discomfort with whatever you do instead. Suppose I'm having a terrible hair day, and to not feel that shame, I cancel a meeting with a client. Just thinking about that client brings on a pang of shame. If I watch a movie to distract myself, I may be hit with an unpleasant twinge just hearing the name of that movie. This happens with every form of psychological suffering we try to outrun. When we run from our feelings, they follow us. Everywhere.