Oftentimes when someone new comes into my office for therapy they are trapped in depression and anxiety, maybe they are prone to over- or under-indulge, battle some form of addiction, or they’re stuck in a relationship or job they can’t stand. Despite the various manifestations of their suffering and why they seek therapy to overcome them, I’d argue that the root cause of their suffering comes down to one thing: avoidance, and its counterpart clinging. Specifically, we all try to avoid discomfort or anything remotely painful and cling to the things that feel good.
Within the mindfulness community there is a distinction made between what is called voluntary and involuntary suffering. Involuntary suffering is the natural pain that every one of us experiences as a result of being human. Involuntary suffering is the pain that comes with being sick and having our bodies give out on us, from the separation or death of a loved one, or an unexpected job loss. There is no avoiding these pains in our lives. Voluntary suffering on the other hand grows out of our reactionto the original, involuntary, pain.
As the Indian guru, Nissargadatta, describes it, “Pain is physical, suffering is mental. Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting. It is a sign of our unwillingness to move, to flow with life. Although all life has pain, a wise life is free of suffering. A wise person is friendly with the inevitable and does not suffer. Pain they know but it does not break them. If they can, they do what is possible to restore balance. If not, they let things take their course.”
The truth is, the natural human tendency is to crave for life to be more pleasurable and less painful than it actually is. Avoidance of pain is evolutionarily hard-wired in us and we are ruled by a survival instinct that is out of harmony with reality. Our brains developed for survival and avoiding pain is essential to how we survive. It makes perfect sense that we instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain. The things our ancestors enjoyed, like having sex, eating, getting out of the cold, or avoiding injury, contributed to our survival as a species. However, it is an unrealistic expectation that life is always pleasurable and never painful.
Unfortunately, our hard-wired tendency to avoid pain can actually cause suffering and can make us miserable. Especially when our avoidance is directed toward our own thoughts, feelings, and sense of self. It can drive a person to get stuck in anxiety or phobias, to sink into depression, become addicted to various substances or behaviors, or even contribute to chronic pain.
Let take anxiety first. We think of anxiety as an apprehension, nervousness, or worry. It’s also associated with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and our “fight or flight” responses. Activation of these responses are not in and of themselves problematic. However, anxiety disorders, where anxiety becomes a problem, involve the avoidance of situations that cause us to feel apprehension, nervousness, or worry. And the longer the avoidance continues, the more entrenched these disorders become.
Someone might skip a party, not take a flight, or dodge a confrontational conversation with a loved one, to avoid the anxiety and discomfort it might cause. Trying to avoid anxiety can wreak havoc on our ability to cope with anxiety, causing an unhealthy cycle. We might even say that avoidance is the opposite of courage. The common understanding is that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s feeling fear and doing what needs to be done anyway. Avoidance is giving in to that fear so we don’t perform what needs to be done because it may cause pain or an uncomfortable situation.
Depression and Avoidance
In regards to depression it’s important to make the distinction between sadness and depression. One difference that I like to describe to my clients, is that sadness feels alive and fluid. It is an essential part of living a full life. We will all feel sadness. On the other hand, depression feels dead and stuck and it gets in the way of living. In fact, depression often results from trying to avoid sadness and other emotional pain. When we try to cut out one side of our emotional experience, we dampen the other side as well.
For example, someone might be holding back from a serious romantic relationship because of the fear of getting hurt, only to find that they miss out on the joys of love. When we try to eliminate painful feelings we flatten our emotional life. In an attempt to avoid feeling sadness, anger, or discontent, people cut themselves off from joy and interest, thus losing themselves to a rabbit hole of depression.
Addiction and Chronic Pain
The addict is an extreme manifestation of the normal human condition. It is not a lack of morality or any deep character flaw that creates addiction. Addiction stems from a lot of pain and a lack of tolerance or compassion for this pain. Addicts get stuck in repetitive and habitual patterns of drinking, drug-use, over-eating, gambling, or whatever actions their addictions take, to avoid feeling their pain.
Even with chronic pain we can see how avoidance can contribute to additional suffering. Many chronic pain disorders involve fearfully tightening muscles, what’s called “bracing and guarding,” in an attempt to avoid re-injuring or exacerbating pain. Patients often restrict their lives and become frightened of everyday movements. This can cause them to miss out on the physical movement they need to regain their strength, endurance and flexibility. Their lives go down-hill as they spend more and more time avoiding what seems to make their pain worse, when it could be making their lives better. Avoidance causes them to give up the very activities that might make their lives richer and more enjoyable.
Avoidance actually traps people in their own suffering. Trying to avoid pain only sets up fear, which causes more pain, and in turn causes more fear. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try to avoid emotional pain, it follows us everywhere. Difficult emotions, like shame, anger, loneliness, fear, despair, confusion, are a natural part of the human experience. It’s just not possible to avoid feeling bad. But there is hope. There are simple practices that are an effective antidote to avoidance. It won’t surprise you to hear that I’m talking about mindfulness and how much I’ve seen it make people’s lives better.
Over the next few weeks I will be outlining some of the core principles of mindfulness and how you can use them to help move past avoidance and transform how you respond to anxiety, depression, addiction, and chronic pain.