What Is Experiential Avoidance?

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What Is Experiential Avoidance?

Experiential avoidance is an attempt or desire to suppress unwanted internal experiences, such as emotions, thoughts, memories and bodily sensations. This unwillingness to stay in contact with internal experiences. It is sometimes referred to as emotional avoidance, emotional unwillingness, thought suppression, and unwillingness.

This is thought to underlie many unhealthy "escape" behaviors, such as substance use, risky sexual behavior, and deliberate self-harm. It may also increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in people who have experienced severe trauma.

Experiential avoidance often becomes a cycle through the process of negative reinforcement. Because this type of avoidance provides short-term relief, it increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.

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History of Experiential Avoidance

Avoiding negative internal experiences is a natural instinct. However, psychotherapists dating back to Sigmund Freud have argued that avoidance in facing our emotional experience can negatively impact our mental health and behaviors.

In the 1990s, psychologists began referring to avoidance and escape behaviors as experiential avoidance. In 1996, psychologists from the University of Nevada wrote in an important paper that "many forms of psychopathology are not merely bad problems, they are also bad solutions, based on a dangerous and ineffective use of experiential avoidance strategies."

Experiential avoidance is seen as a coping style that may perpetuate problems or produce new ones. For example, trying not to feel anxious may perpetuate anxiety instead of allowing it to dissipate.

Signs of Experiential Avoidance

People engage in different types of experiential avoidance all the time. It is characterized by any action designed to deal with internal experiences. Some examples in day-to-day life include putting on a warm jacket when it is cold outside, browsing social media when you're feeling bored, or calling a friend when you're feeling bored.

When these behaviors interfere with normal functioning or when they are applied in harmful ways, they become problematic. Some signs of potentially harmful experiential avoidance include:

  • Avoiding situations that make you uncomfortable
  • Judgmental thoughts
  • Using substances to avoid dealing with unpleasant emotions
  • Trying not to think about things that cause distress
  • Withdrawing from social experiences to prevent feelings of anxiety

While these avoidance behaviors are attempts to control internal experiences, they ultimately worsen distress and tend to be life-limiting. Thought stopping, for example, contributes to thought rebounding, in which people find themselves dealing with even more negative thoughts.

Impact of Experiential Avoidance

While everyone engages in certain types of experiential avoidance, chronic use of this approach can negatively affect many different areas of life. For example, people may put off important tasks because they create discomfort or anxiety. In other cases, people might forgo opportunities because they are worried about failing. 

It can also have a serious impact on interpersonal relationships. People might avoid spending time with others or skip social occasions because they fear feelings of discomfort or anxiety. Fear of being vulnerable can also cause people to avoid close relationships altogether.

Experiential avoidance has been associated with:

Experiential avoidance is also believed to increase a traumatized person's risk of developing and maintaining PTSD.

For example, a study published in 2014 found that abused children were much more likely to develop PTSD if they tried to avoid painful thoughts and emotions after the abuse rather than talking about their negative feelings.

Research suggests that experiential avoidance has a considerable impact on the severity of psychological distress that survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience in adulthood.

Some researchers suggest that experiential avoidance strategies may in part explain why 40% of children who are abused develop PTSD over the course of their lives, while the other 60% do not.

Experiential avoidance is one of three emotion regulation strategies believed to increase the risk of PTSD. The other two emotion regulation strategies implicated in PTSD are rumination and thought suppression.

How to Deal With Experiential Avoidance

The opposite of avoidance is acceptance. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of psychotherapy that was developed to reduce experiential avoidance.

ACT is based on the idea that suffering comes not from the experience of emotional pain but from our attempted avoidance of that pain. Its overarching goal is to help people be open to and willing to have their inner experiences while focusing attention not on trying to escape or avoid pain (because this is impossible to do) but instead on living a meaningful life.

There are five goals of ACT:

  1. Recognizing that trying to escape from emotional pain will never work
  2. Realizing that trying to control the pain is the problem
  3. Viewing yourself as separate from your thoughts
  4. Letting go of attempts to avoid or control thoughts and feelings 
  5. Living a meaningful and rewarding life

ACT is one form of treatment recommended for PTSD and other psychological problems related to experiential avoidance.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is experiential avoidance related to PTSD?

    Avoidance behaviors are one of the primary symptoms of PTSD. Research suggests that experiential avoidance contributes to the development of PTSD. This avoidance tends to lead to more of what the person is trying to avoid. It also increases the risk of experiencing even more distressing experiences. Finally, avoidance prevents people from having helpful experiences and gaining social support that would help them better cope with trauma.

  • What are examples of experiential avoidance?

    Examples of experiential avoidance include avoiding situations that might trigger anxiety, using drugs or alcohol to escape painful feelings, or engaging in ritual behaviors to try to prevent bad things from happening.

  • How do I stop experiential avoidance?

    Instead of trying to avoid difficult situations or emotions, you should focus on acceptance. Emotional acceptance, for example, allows people to learn that difficult emotions won't harm them, but the behaviors they engage in to avoid those distressing feelings can cause harm. The act of accepting the feelings and allowing them to exist gives people the chance to move foreward in meaningful ways.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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