Avoidance is a typical trauma response. It is a coping mechanism that you may use to reduce the adverse effects of trauma, such as distressing thoughts and feelings. It is entirely natural to want to not think about a traumatic event or your emotions related to it. However, when avoidance is extreme or the primary way you cope, it can interfere with your overall recovery and quality of life.
There are two main types of avoidance:
- Emotional avoidance: when you avoid thoughts or feelings about a traumatic event
- Behavioral avoidance: avoiding reminders of trauma (people, places, sounds, smells, etc.)
What does Avoidance look like?
It can look like this:
- Avoiding large crowds or group settings
- Sleeping a lot or very little
- Staying at home or rarely being home
- Distraction tactics (i.e., drugs, alcohol, tv, over working, etc.)
Is Avoidance a helpful coping strategy?
Avoidance is an adaptive coping strategy that can be helpful in the short term after trauma. However, ongoing avoidance has been found by researchers to be associated with more significant psychological trauma in the long term. Because avoidant behavior is developed to help survival, it may be helpful for some time but hurtful once the danger is gone. Long-term avoidance can be detrimental to your recovery because it can get in the way of processing the event. It prevents you from acknowledging and working through your thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic event. By pushing away or minimizing your emotions, you may make your symptoms of PTSD more intense and make your fears grow. Avoidant coping can also negatively impact your quality of life. You may lose interest in activities you once enjoyed, you may experience relationship problems, and you may experience further emotional issues.
There are times when avoidance is a healthy coping mechanism. It is not as simple as just saying, “do not do avoidant behavior.” Sometimes it is the right thing to do, and it is okay to avoid to a certain extent. Avoiding small things, like a movie, that may upset you is a smart choice that will likely save you from unwanted distress and not negatively impact you. But avoiding seeing any move at all may impact your social life. Again, when the avoidance behavior impedes your quality of life and your ability to process your trauma, it needs to be addressed.
How can Exposure Therapy help?
Avoidance behavior is not something you can just stop doing. It takes work. The treatment of choice for avoidance is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy was developed to help you confront your fears. In exposure therapy, a therapist creates a safe environment where you can be exposed to things you fear. Exposure in a safe environment can help you reduce your anxiety and fear and decrease avoidant behavior. There are different types of exposure therapy and different paces that you can progress at. Your therapist would help you determine what the best fit for you is. Exposure therapy is helpful because it:
- Helps decrease your fear over time
- Enables you to learn new associations
- Helps you feel more confident and capable of confronting your fears and managing your anxieties
- Can help you process your emotions
Avoidance is a normal trauma response. Avoidant coping can help a short time after a traumatic event, but when this coping strategy persists and impedes your quality of life, it becomes harmful. Exposure therapy is the primary way to work on avoidant behaviors. Tracking your avoidance symptoms may also be helpful, which you can do on the Mira app. If avoidance is taking over your life, therapy may help.