We’ve all heard it before: compulsions equal bad. You have to face your fear to overcome it. Running away and avoiding your fear will only make it worse.
You may have also heard it is important to redirect your energies toward a life of personal value and meaning.
But, when is it avoidance, and when is it redirection?
Traditional Treatment for Anxiety Disorder
To understand the avoidance vs. redirection discussion, you first have to know the therapeutic framework.
Treatment for anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety spectrum disorders, including social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorders, and specific phobias, will usually take the form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP).
In a nutshell, CBT is concerned with your thoughts (cognitions) and your actions (behaviors). To start, CBT will have you look at your thoughts and the stories you tell yourself about the situation you are in and see if you can think about them more logically. If you can think about them differently then you can do something different about those situations and respond to your thoughts and the outside world in more reasonable and adaptive ways. This last is the behavioral part.
Exposure and Response Prevention fits into this behavioral part. ERP helps you to slowly and thoughtfully get closer to your fears (exposure), while intentionally resisting compulsive or unhelpful behaviors (response prevention).
Avoidance as an Unhelpful Behavior
Along with reassurance seeking, rumination, and rituals, avoidance is one of those compulsive and maladaptive coping skills that prevent people from effectively facing their fears and learning that they can handle anxiety and uncertainty. Simultaneously, people see that their worst fear is really unlikely to happen. When you avoid uncomfortable situations or thoughts, you also avoid the opportunity to learn from them and grow from your lived experiences.
It’s like physical exercise. When you avoid it, you don’t get stronger.
ERP would have you face your fears and learn to endure the momentary discomfort and ride the fluctuating wave of anxiety up to its peak until it comes down back to baseline. In this process, you see that anxiety did not kill you, that you were strong enough to endure the wonky experience and discover what actually happens (usually nothing, in the best way).
Avoidance is a ploy to not feel uncomfortable or not have an unwanted experience.
Suppression is avoidance’s aggressive twin. Suppression can include thoughts, feelings, mental images, or physical sensations. This is the intentional effort of stuffing a feeling down or shoving it out of your experience. It’s exhausting and ultimately does not work. For example, don’t think about a white elephant: How’s that going?
What Is Redirection?
Redirection is a deliberate effort to place your attention and energy on actions, thoughts, or interactions that are more meaningful and important to you at the moment.
In fact, I bet you already do this. Have you ever been in class and gotten distracted by a thought of the cute redhead, then try to refocus back on the teacher? Or ever been in a meeting and start dreaming of that vacation you’re going on, and then catch yourself, and try to get your head back in the meeting? That’s redirection.
They Are not the Same
Avoidance and redirection have similarities, but knowing their differences can be a turning point for you in treatment.
They both seemingly place less emphasis on a specific thought, but that’s where they stop their similarities.
Avoidance, along with its twin suppression, are a futile attempt to pretend as if the unwanted experience does not exist. You deceive yourself with the hope that just not thinking about the feeling, thought, or mental image will make it go away and that you’ll feel better.
To be fair, it may feel better for a moment, but remember that white elephant exercise? Efforts to avoid or suppress only amplify the thought, make it more important, and ensure that it sticks in the mind and body longer.
On the other hand, redirection acknowledges the presence of the thought and feeling and elevates the importance of another thought or action over the unwanted one. Redirection does not seek to destroy unwanted thoughts. Instead, it affirms the importance of something else and pursues it with gentle interest and commitment.
It’s like adopting a dog at the pound. You don’t have to have all the other dogs put down in order to adopt the dog you want. You just say, “Hey, I’ll take that one,” and let the other ones be adopted by other people, while they slowly drift from your memory.
We can help.
Hillary Counseling offers individual therapy and online therapy services for anxiety treatment.
Article By: Kevin Foss, LCSW