When someone gets anxious or has a fear the feelings, thoughts, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences the the fear or anxiety bring about are frequently so unpleasant that the individual will do just about anything to avoid them. This fear of the fear, or more correctly the fear of the effects of the fear is so distressing for many people that even talking about the issue is a problem. The distress is often heightened when there is no apparent direct cause or fear as occurs with GAD or General Anxiety Disorder or SAD Social Anxiety Disorder. There is a fear that these feelings could strike at any time.
It is not surprising then that people with fear and anxiety often end up not just avoiding the object of the anxiety, if there is one, but also of the resultant feelings, thoughts, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences. This second type of avoidance is known as Experiential Avoidance.
Recent research has shown that how one reacts to the emotions and feelings that result from the anxiety makes a huge difference as to whether the individual is likely to get worse or not.
A swath of research is showing that people who are unwilling to experience the feelings, thoughts, memories, physical sensations and other internal experiences associated with the anxiety are much more likely to find the symptoms escalating and deeper problems arising.
Part of the problem is avoidance can only ever be a temporary relief and will never 'fix or solve' the problem. It merely side-steps the issue, which means that it is left still to face later. This is one reason why people who engage in avoidance as an emotion regulation strategy keep having the same and often escalating problem.
Another issue is that avoidance of anything psychologically reinforces the idea that the thing, in this case the feelings and thoughts, being avoided are bad or even dangerous in some way.
In order to avoid something requires that you end up focussing on and in many cases often obsessing about the very thing you are trying to avoid. This then means that the individual is focussing and obsessing about a negative. This takes time and effort and in effect crowds out all the other experiences of being a human, many of which are positive and joyful. As the individual focusses more and more on avoiding the horrible feelings and experiences, less and less concentration is placed on the positive things in life. In effect it becomes a negative vortex, dragging the individual down, often resulting eventually in depression, OCD, resorting to drugs and alcohol, self-harming, restricting food intake and even suicide.
We are finding that all of these problems frequently stem from Experiential Avoidance.
This is one of the reasons I deal with the avoidance as a matter of importance whilst treating the presenting anxiety and help the individual develop better and more effective emotion regulation strategies.
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Gámez, Wakiza; et al (2011). "Development of a measure of experiential avoidance: The Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire". Psychological Assessment23 (3): 692–713. doi:10.1037/a0023242. PMID 21534697.
Hayes, Steven C.et al (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-481-2.
Hayes, Steven C. Et Al (1996). "Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment". Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 64 (6): 1152–68. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.64.6.1152. PMID 8991302.
Losada, A. etal (2014) Development and validation of the experiential avoidance in caregiving questionnaire (EACQ). Aging & Mental Health. Volume 18, Issue 7, 2014