PTSD Coping Emotional Avoidance in PTSD Avoidance may work in the short-term but can cause more problems later By Matthew Tull, PhD Matthew Tull, PhD Twitter Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder. Learn about our editorial process Updated on August 29, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Steven Gans, MD Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Maskot / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Avoidance Cluster Behavior Emotional Avoidance in PTSD Drawbacks of Emotional Avoidance Management and Treatment Emotional avoidance is a common reaction to trauma. In fact, emotional avoidance is part of the avoidance cluster of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, serving as a way for people with PTSD to escape painful or difficult emotions. Avoidance refers to any action designed to prevent the occurrence of an uncomfortable emotion such as fear, sadness, or shame. For example, a person may try to avoid difficult emotions through the use of substances or dissociation. Emotional avoidance may be effective in the short-term and can provide some temporary relief. In the long run, it often causes more harm as avoidance behaviors are associated with increased severity of PTSD symptoms. What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Unavailable? Avoidance Cluster Behavior The avoidance cluster of PTSD symptoms is categorized as the attempt to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings as well as external reminders such as conversations about the traumatic event or people or places that bring the event to mind. Avoidance behaviors are effectively an effort to withdraw from situations and feelings that produce trauma-related symptoms. Moreover, people engaging in avoidance may have emotional numbing symptoms such as feeling distant from others, losing interest in activities they used to enjoy, or having trouble experiencing positive feelings such as happiness or love. Avoiding emotional experiences is common among people who have PTSD. Emotional Avoidance in PTSD Research shows that people with PTSD often try to avoid or “push away” their emotions, both emotions about a traumatic experience and emotions in general. In addition, it has been found that trying to avoid feeling emotions may make some PTSD symptoms worse or even contribute to the development of PTSD symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event. Drawbacks of Emotional Avoidance Emotions serve important psychological and physiological purposes. Your emotions provide you with information about yourself and the things going on around you. They communicate and motivate action. For example, fear tells you that you may be in danger; sadness tells you that you may need some time to take care of yourself or seek help from others. While emotional avoidance temporarily suppresses difficult emotions, the emotions you're trying to avoid may grow harder to ignore over time. Your emotions may “fight back” in an attempt to serve their functions. If someone is determined to avoid feeling their emotions, they may eventually turn to more drastic and unhealthy ways to avoid them, such as substance use. Avoiding your emotions also takes considerable effort, and as the emotions you are avoiding grow stronger, more and more effort is needed to keep them at bay. As a result, little energy may be left for the important things in your life such as family and friends. In addition, using all your energy to avoid certain emotions may make it difficult to manage other experiences, such as frustration and irritation, making you more likely to be “on edge” and angry. Research has also suggested that avoidance coping leads to chronic worry. The Purpose of Emotions Management and Treatment The best way to start managing your symptoms is to develop healthier coping mechanisms that allow you to identify, accept, and process your emotions. Therapy can provide the opportunity to express and understand your emotions as well as examine the sources of those emotional responses. If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) In addition to examining emotions connected directly to the traumatic event, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may address how certain thoughts or ways of evaluating a situation may be contributing to your emotions. Therapists who practice CBT typically focus on what is going on in the individual's current life, rather than past events, and the focus is on moving forward in time to devise more effective strategies for coping with life. The Best Online Therapy Programs We've tried, tested and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, Betterhelp, and Regain. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), on the other hand, focuses on breaking down avoidance and helping a person place their energy into living a meaningful life (and being willing to experience whatever emotions arise as a result). In order to produce psychological flexibility, ACT makes use of acceptance and mindfulness processes and commitment and behavior change processes. Social Support and Self-Monitoring Whichever therapy you choose, getting help can provide you with a safe place to express and approach your emotions. Seeking social support from trusted loved ones can also provide a safe way to express your emotions. Finally, writing about your feelings can also give you a safe and private way to release your deepest thoughts. If your emotions feel really unclear or unpredictable, self-monitoring may be a useful strategy for you. It can give you a sense of which situations bring out certain thoughts and feelings. Finally, if your emotions feel too strong, try distraction instead of avoidance. Distraction can be viewed as “temporary avoidance.” Do something to temporarily distract you from a strong negative emotion, such as reading a book, calling a trusted friend, or taking a bath. This may give the emotion some time to decrease in strength, making it easier to cope with. How to Reduce Avoidance in PTSD 4 Sources 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. Boden MT, Westermann S, McRae K, et al. Emotion regulation and posttraumatic stress disorder: a prospective investigation. 2013;32(3):296-314. doi:10.1521/jscp.2013.32.3.296 Tull MT, Hahn KS, Evans SD, Salters-pedneault K, Gratz KL. Examining the role of emotional avoidance in the relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder symptom severity and worry. Cogn Behav Ther. 2011;40(1):5-14. What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? American Psychological Association. Hayes SC, Lillis J. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. 2012. By Matthew Tull, PhD Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for PTSD Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.