Self-Induced Suffering and How to Stop It
The experience of being human comes with it a daily balancing act of external forces that are often out of our control (e.g. bad drivers on the highway, politics, family emergencies) and the internal forces at work in our minds (e.g. feelings, reactions, thoughts, choices). Sometimes we are consciously unaware of these interactions between the extrinsic and intrinsic. You stub your toe, and your immediate reaction is pain followed by a sharp inhale through your teeth while you hobble on one foot. Other interactions between the external and internal exist much farther forward into our awareness. Those events have much less predictable outcomes because the result depends on how a person chooses to react. A student fails a midterm exam in class, and any number of events could follow, all determined by that student’s internal forces and the choice that is made afterward. One commonly utilized choice is called experiential avoidance.
What is Experiential Avoidance?
Experiential avoidance is defined by Harris (2022) as, “the ongoing attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted inner experiences”. Such unwanted experiences might be stress, rejection, heartbreak, panic, or any other uncomfortable feelings one can think of. Society today has dubbed these inner experiences “negative feelings.” As a result, we as a society have developed the habit of doing whatever we can to avoid these “negative” internal feelings and seek “positive” ones. On a cultural level, feeling immediate and consistent happiness has become the expected norm, and to feel anything other-than is considered abnormal. Think about how uncomfortable it feels when you walk up to someone and ask, “How are you?” and their response is anything other than, “I’m good.” We don’t know how to respond at first because we have come to expect a happy answer.
It is commonplace for a single failure or disappointment to cause us to give up on a goal completely in order to avoid failing again. Refer back to the student example from earlier. After failing that midterm exam, the student will most likely experience sadness, disappointment, and anxiety, all of which are normal reactions. However, in the pursuit of immediate happiness, the student may then choose to drop the class in order to avoid experiencing such pain again. This is an experiential avoidance behavior.
Upon dropping the class, what inner experiences might the student suddenly notice? My guess is relief. For the rest of the semester, the student is free of the anguish caused by that stressful class. Great, right? Only one problem – the fact remains that the requirement to pass that class has not and will not go away. Here lies the issue with our tendency towards experiential avoidance: it creates temporary relief and in turn, worsens the real long-term problem.
The Neurological Impact
If we are not careful, seeking that short term relief created by the continuous use of experiential avoidance can quickly become a habit which eventually evolves into a cycle of behavior that, research has shown, can worsen deeper psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and eating disorders (Harris, 2022). This habitual cycle of avoidance behavior is the result of reinforcing and strengthening the associated neural pathways in the brain. Essentially, a neural pathway is a group of neurons related to a specific function in the brain, and when these pathways are activated, they create certain cognitive processes (Siegel, 2001).
Let’s view experiential avoidance as a neural pathway in the brain. A research study by Schlund et al. (2011) suggests the more a person participates in avoidance behaviors, the more habitual those avoidance behaviors become on a neurological level. “These avoidance behaviors, if regularly repeated, strengthen the associated fears and increase the likelihood of continued avoidance” (Radtke et al., 2020). This is what is called negative reinforcement (the taking away of something bad which then reinforces a certain behavior). The temporary reward associated with such avoidance then continues to convince the brain that, “Avoidance feels good and keeps me safe,” which is true at that particular moment. Consequently, the avoidance neural pathway is being strengthened and becoming the brain’s go-to reaction. This negative reinforcement is central to avoidance learning that, research suggests, is significantly linked to amygdala and insula dysfunction that contributes to mood disorders, such as PTSD and social anxiety (Schlund, 2011).
Consider for a moment how the development of this kind of mental process plays a part in social anxiety. In a hypothetical scenario, Jane Doe struggles with social anxiety disorder and has only one good friend even though she desperately wants to make more friends. When Jane gets invited to social gatherings, the thought of meeting new people makes her anxious, and she always decides not to go. For a few minutes Jane internally experiences the relief she craves (negative reinforcement), but once that passes, she is stuck with deep sadness, shame, decreased self-esteem that intensifies her social anxiety, and still no new friends. So…do you think Jane’s avoidance behaviors are helpful or harmful? Did her pursuit of instant happiness make her truly happy?
How Do We Break the Cycle?
A good place to start is gaining an awareness of internal forces at work. When our mind becomes practiced at catching and noticing automatic feelings and thoughts, it is then better able to decide what to do about them. As a result, we get to choose our subsequent behavior. One option is to decide to move toward instead of away. Moving toward simply means choosing to act in a way that aligns with how you truly want to live (Harris, 2022). This can mean exercising rather than eating a bag of chips or reading your favorite book instead of binging YouTube videos.
On a more clinical level, an example of a “moving-toward” strategy is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy can effectively disrupt the avoidance cycle by gradually and repeatedly facing a fear head on (Radtke et al., 2020). Might this be scary or painful at times? Of course, but experiences that involve a little bit of suffering often help us live according to our values. Viktor Frankl (1959/2006) states it best in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, when he writes, “One could make victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate…”.
Frankl, V.E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press. (Original work published in 1959).
Harris, R. (2022). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living (2nd ed.).
Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Radtke, S.R., Strege, M.V., & Ollendick, T.H. (2020). Exposure therapy for children and
adolescents with social anxiety disorder. Exposure Therapy for Children with Anxiety and OCD: Clinician’s Guide to Integrated Treatment. 193-219. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-815915-6.00009-3
Schlund, M.W., Magee, S., & Hudgins, C.D. (2011). Human avoidance and approach learning:
Evidence for overlapping neural systems and experiential avoidance modulation of avoidance neurocircuitry. Behavioural Brain Research, 225, 437-448. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2011.07.054
Siegel, D.J. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment
relationships, “mindsight,” and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 67-94
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