“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think”.
Friedrich Nietzsche stated: “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger”. Nevertheless, our own experience and a few gazes at the people around us are enough to prove that this statement is valid for only part of the cases. In reality, what doesn’t kill us won’t necessarily make us stronger. We often survive difficult experiences; however, those experiences keep hurting us intensively, even to an extent of significant functional impairment.
What does one do, when facing anticipated suffering or distress? Three main coping styles are available:
Bearing and carrying the distress and somehow functioning despite its presence. After a social encounter, with lots of alcohol, I woke up in the morning, sensing the beginning of the familiar headache. I thought to myself ‘After a nice shower, a cup of tea and a cookie, I will probably feel better’, and then acted accordingly.
Escaping from the predicted distress source when experienced. The moment I woke up sensing the beginning of the headache, I thought ‘Oh no! I can’t stand such a headache now. I have to take a Tylenol’ – and swallowed 2 pills to avoid any further distress. In other words, I learned through my personal experience what was the most effective distress terminating response and now I just automatically implement my learning, to eliminate any active distress.
The third coping type is Retroactive avoidance from a situation that is suspected, or perceived as a potential distress generator. Due to the headache I started to feel, I concluded: ‘that’s it, I will never attend social events again. I just end up suffering when I do that’. Behaviorally, from that moment on, I quit attending social events, and by doing so, I am sure that this is the reason why I don’t suffer from headaches anymore.
I would like to focus now on the third coping style – the AVOIDANCE pattern, as this is the most hazardous and harming one. What differentiates the escaping coping style from the avoiding one? ESCAPING stops an unpleasant stimulus experienced in the present. While not always a necessary behavior, it is a response anchored in reality. However, AVOIDANCE prevents the individual from experiencing reality altogether, before sensing any unpleasant stimulus. ESCAPING happens because of the real present, as opposed to AVOIDANCE which happens because of a predicted future.
Clearly, AVOIDANCE is the most harmful of the three coping styles. It derives from one’s subjective catastrophic prediction, rather than from an objective reality experienced by the individual. This prediction is triggered by a priming sign, which symbolizes and predicts an approaching negative reality. Therefore, AVOIDANCE is not a response to a stimulus. It simply prevents any chance of it happening. It is tragic that by becoming accustomed to avoidance, one does not react to actual reality any more, but to a virtual reality, generated and alive in the individual’s mind. Thus, virtual reality generates negative predictions, causing negative emotions (fear, shame, guilt, anxiety…), resulting in avoiding behavior. This is a self-sustained vicious circle.
Correcting one’s cognitive distortion is not an easy task, because from the avoiding person’s point of view, he/she is behaving at that moment in the most appropriate manner possible, merely trying to avoid suffering, using familiar ways.
Avoidance plays a primary role in a substantial variety of human distress situations. Avoidance is a major and crucial factor in generating and preserving all anxiety disorders, as well as depression, low self-esteem, and many other disorders and discomforts. Cognitive-Behavioral Psychotherapy offers evidence-based therapeutic interventions to help cope and overcome those distresses, while fundamentally referring to avoidance as a prime component of the distress.
Noam Gordon, M.Sc.
Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapist