When does avoiding the things that make you unhappy become unhealthy?
December 26, 2014 8:35 AM   Subscribe

At what point does avoiding the things that make you unhappy become unhealthy?

Hi everyone.

I've been thinking for quite a long time about the idea of living a life by which one tries to avoid the things that cause one to remember or to feel badly about the past. For an even longer time before that, I sort of just assumed that one had to experience those things, or maybe even had to purposely seek those things/places/people/experiences out in some sort of attempt to get over it or desensitize oneself to the pain.

But then I started to learn about the concept of self care and began to avoid certain things that are painful to experience, such as certain music or photos or whatever. It became apparent that it is possible to sort of skip from stone to stone in life, to choose happiness even. So I'm sort of left with a lot of triggers, probably no more or less than most people, which makes me wonder if it is normal and healthy to live in a kind of avoidance. Is it denial? I guess it would just be nice for someone to say that it's not denial and that it is okay so long as it's not preventing me from functioning or living life, because of course if it goes too far then that's when other problems are created, like phobias.

It's just that it's becoming apparent to me that wounds don't always heal in life, and the most we can do is just not pick at them or exacerbate them. My instinct says that this is how it is for most people. It's sort of freeing in a way, to feel like it's okay if I'm not okay through and through, emotionally pristine and all healed up.

Also, I am looking for books or articles or anything that might deal with this.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Avoidance can help in the short term, but as you're learning, it doesn't really address the issues. Soon, you're avoiding more and more of the world, fearing a trigger.

People who have been through very traumatic experiences have been helped by EFT Tapping Therapy to reduce intrusive thoughts, you may want to check this out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:45 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are things that I think most people do to prevent uncomfortable situations, for example avoid people you dislike, whether family or friends or stop watching certain tv shows, movies, or media in general that will upset you, etc. That is pretty common and most people, sooner or later, decide that it's better for their mental health to cut that crap.
But two words stand out in your question "triggers" and "phobias", which make me think that you might be talking about deeper stuff, so I don't know if avoing those feelings would be useful.
posted by divina_y_humilde at 9:00 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know, but I suspect, that you've got something particular stuck in your craw here, so I'm not sure that we're going to be able to give you a good answer because we don't have a concept what it is or a relative metric of how severe it is.

I'll give you an anecdote:
I know two people who both sort of fit your groove here, vis-a-vis spending a lot of time thinking about the things that they're trying to avoid, sort of creating that cliched spiral.

One of them has never, ever, ever known any kind of real loss or hardship, ever, and I honestly think the part where she has no perspective makes her both neurotic and obsessive and also makes it hard for her to actually be empathetic for people around her when they really experience hardship. It also makes her completely unappreciative of what she has. I say that like I don't like her---which of course I do, she's golden, but she comes at life from an angle that almost nobody else can understand.

I have another friend who has known not a lot BUT hardship in his life, including on-going day-to-day stuff that really wears him down. He knows that he has zero control over most of it, so instead, he obsesses about the minutae that he DOES control, which also makes him neurotic. It's the 8 week obsessive discussion over what phone to get, or the 3 hour debating whether to drive to his sister's house for Christmas because her husband was sick the other day, etc. He does, however, entirely appreciate the things that he has BUT he is unwilling to ever ask for help or support, which I absolutely respect, however he's the first guy to offer help to ANYONE, even to his own detriment.

So the correlation here is that both of them obsess over their aversions to the Nth degree, and that's where I think that it becomes unhealthy. They spend so much time thinking about the things that bring them down that they're sorta always terrified of them, AND it makes any misstep or foible seem like the universe inevitably dragging them back towards the thing they're trying to avoid.
posted by TomMelee at 9:19 AM on December 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

At the point where it's affecting your daily life and the lives of people around you.

I had a friend who wouldn't visit certain coffee shops, do certain activities like rock climbing, or listen to certain genres of music because they reminded her of her ex. There have been times when I would say something like "oh we were thinking of going rock climbing, wanna come?" and she would get all somber and weird and say "I can't do that because my ex used to love rock climbing and we were going to go together and we never did." Or I would say, "Oh, let's meet at the coffee place on Main Street!" and she'd say, "That used to be my ex's favorite coffee shop and it's just too painful to go there." Or I would be minding my own business and I'd get a phone call with her shakily saying on the line, "I saw someone that looked like my ex and I got upset and needed to call someone" - years after the breakup. Years, and she had a new partner by this point.

It was severely impacting not just her life but the lives of people around her. I suggested EMDR until I was blue in the face but she didn't listen. EMDR can be very helpful for things like this. I eventually dumped her as a friend because her traumas and triggers were taking up so much of my time. She refused to even acknowledge that she was doing this stuff, which was one of the main reasons I had to walk away. So her avoidance of "triggers" caused a severe rift and a severe issue in her life - and in mine, and in the lives of other people around her. As much as she wanted to pretend that was not the case, that was the general consensus as far as I heard from the gossip - that she couldn't be alone and that she had a lot of triggers that people had to eggshell around.

I've got my own traumas and sore spots but I keep them to myself and they do not affect my day-to-day life in any way. I go on a walk or take some deep breaths or I talk to my therapist or I have a hot bath and a half a glass of wine when I feel them bubbling up. I did EMDR for awhile. There is absolutely nothing that I avoid anymore, nothing that I "can't" see, nowhere I "can't" go, nothing I "can't" do, because of these things. If someone invited me to see my abusive ex-boyfriend in the flesh doing something like giving a talk, I would say something like, "Oh, sorry, I've got other plans!" But if someone invited me to go to the diner where he and I used to go every week to have long romantic breakfasts, I would be happy to go and make new memories there. Walking in the door might be a bit of an "oof" for a moment but then I'd sit down and hug my friend and be so happy to see them, and I'd order my favorite quiche and bottomless coffee and we'd get to talking and I would forget all about the initial oof and my sorry excuse of an ex-boyfriend.

So, my take is: when it's making you and the people around you unhappy, when it's an issue, then it's an issue. If you just don't want to watch The Wire again because it makes you feel bad because it reminds you of a good time that you miss? You don't have to watch The Wire. And if later, you think to yourself, man, I loved that show! I should try watching it again, despite the bad memories attached to it! - then go ahead and watch it and enjoy it.

You should live your life the way you want to live it. You're asking this question because, I suspect, the avoiding is actually making you unhappy. It's a good feeling in the moment - man, I avoided that trigger - but then it's like - I also missed out on something. So take care of yourself. If you don't want to expose yourself to things, don't, but figure out self-care mechanisms that allow you to continue living the life you want to live. Don't beat yourself up for avoiding things, but don't avoid things that you actually deep down don't want to avoid.

Take care.
posted by sockermom at 9:20 AM on December 26, 2014 [19 favorites]

I think that the answer will vary, and that you know best, so I won't tackle the big question you asked. But you can probably find a lot of Buddhist thinking on this under search terms "cravings and aversions." I do find that yoga and meditation help reduce my reactivity to these.
posted by salvia at 9:29 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is sometimes called "avoidance coping." Avoidance can be a useful tool in coping with Bad Stuff. It shouldn't be the only tool in the box, though. There will be times when you can't avoid those triggers: someone will mention a name, or you'll hear a song on the radio. If all you've been doing is avoiding, you're more likely to have a negative lasting reaction. It's healthy to get some other strategies. Therapy can do that. (You're on AskMe, you knew it was coming at some point.)
posted by a hat out of hell at 10:22 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sockermom's answer is pretty accurate, I think. The avoiding has to be a choice - not a visceral reaction.

There are a lot of things in life that we can't change - we can't go back in time, I mean - and dwelling on those things isn't particularly helpful once you've gleaned the lesson from it (if there is one to be had, I mean). So, you figure out the lesson and you push through. You avoid the unpleasantness because literally nothing is left to gain from it other than a really bad feeling.

There are plenty of things in my past that, if I stop and ponder, will either make me so incredibly sad that I get overwhelmed or make me so incredibly angry that I want to throw things. I have learnt the lessons from those circumstances, though, so when the thoughts pop up (like now!) I am able to not let myself fall in. After I hit the "post answer" button on this, those crappy past events won't ruin the rest of my day.

The trick is figuring out if pushing away negatives is also pushing away good things. Like the example sockermom gave - if you can't go anywhere, or do anything, because it brings up things that you don't want to deal with, well, you either need to spend some time dealing with it (sitting down, facing the negative head-on, figuring out the lesson) or you need to get help dealing with it (therapy).
posted by VioletU at 10:30 AM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it's often a question of how much anxiety is tied up in the things one is avoiding. A true "trigger" is one that creates physiological arousal -- increased heartbeat, increased adrenaline, rapid breathing, etc. -- during which the body goes into "fight, flight, or freeze" mode (and for people who have suffered trauma, it's usually a "freeze" reaction). It's pretty much the adrenal system highjacking the brain and convincing it that death or immense physical harm is imminent.

The word "trigger" is often used colloquially to mean "things that make me sad or angry."

We are all going to have things in life that make us sad or angry, and trying to steer clear of those things most of the time is fine, but anyone experiencing true "triggering" on a regular basis should most likely be working on some sort of anti-anxiety or desensitization program. Avoiding triggers is a great short-term solution and a really poor long-term solution, because it limits your life and actually overall increases your anxiety (because people get anxious about avoiding the anxiety-provoking situations).
posted by jaguar at 12:25 PM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is what you have in mind, but there is a strand of thought in grief studies that interventions, and therapy, and talking, and "processing" actually do more harm than good for a significant percentage of the population. The idea isn't that the bereaved are forever wounded; instead, the idea is that some people are naturally resilient. For these people, it is argued, it is better to avoid talking or thinking about the loss; retrieving these painful experiences undermines the healing process (or, perhaps more precisely, the resilient don't need to undergo a healing process in the first place and thinking about the loss actually causes them harm they wouldn't otherwise experience).

Of course, like many theories, this one is open to criticism and is the subject of active discussion.

People you might want to take a look at in this debate include George Bonanno and James Pennebaker.
posted by girl flaneur at 3:01 PM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

(or, perhaps more precisely, the resilient don't need to undergo a healing process in the first place and thinking about the loss actually causes them harm they wouldn't otherwise experience)

I think that's the key part of that theory -- if you're not in distress, you don't need to force it. That's a different situation than already being in distress, which is generally taken as a sign that intervention will likely be helpful.
posted by jaguar at 3:04 AM on December 27, 2014

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