appreciating avoidance

from evy's notebook

Earlier this year, I read a book called The Way Out which dramatically helped me manage some chronic pain I'd been experiencing. One lesson in the book, which I've been thinking a lot about since, has shifted the way I think about avoidant behavior. The author teaches a mindfulness technique of observing the sensations of pain and being present without trying to change it, but he recommends only doing this when pain feels manageable enough to observe without feeling overwhelmed. In situations where pain is really intense, he still recommends doing whatever is already known to help -- heating pads, pain medication, silly rituals that don't make sense but seem to do the trick. He teaches this strategy of changing a relationship with pain, but then also recommends only using it in situations where that change feels possible. He recommends this because when pain is too intense, trying to mindfully observe it can backfire and build strong negative association with the technique.

I've been thinking about how this could apply to any unpleasant thing in life. There are situations where I've wanted to fix something right away and jumped in before I was equipped to handle the situation, and ended up only feeling more overwhelmed. I've been trying to notice more which situations are best left avoided, for a little while, in an intentional way, until I feel ready to think about it with some clarity.

It's been neat to see how "anxious" and "avoidant", terms I've usually only seen in attachment theory, can show up in contexts outside of relationships. Sometimes when I'm worrying about something, I spiral around trying to fix it immediately, which seems like an anxious response. Sometimes when I'm overwhelmed, I watch short videos for hours or listen to a podcast until I fall asleep, which seems like avoidance.

I feel obliged to say that this, like most things, isn't a binary. A lot of avoidance feels like it comes from being overwhelmed by anxiety, and a lot of anxiety can come out of build up avoidance to a thing that is scarier because it hasn't been confronted. And these behaviors don't fit into a good/bad binary either. After a lot of fear of being avoidant, reading this example in The Way Out has helped me feel more comfortable using avoidance as a potential strategy of reaching a state where I can feel ready to move forward.