It has been clear to psychologists for some time that anxiety lies at the heart of most patients’ difficulties. In many cases, people come for therapy because they are afraid of aspects of their world or their own experiences that only mildly affect others or even seem harmless to them. One example that fits into this category are the various phobias people report and these cover an immense range of feared events such as flying, elevators, animals and so on. In such instances our work together consists of finding ways to overcome such fears so as to live life more freely and enjoyably.
But the difficulty faced by numerous other people is not due to such overt anxiety, but rather stems from the strategies they have developed in order to avoid such anxiety. This general tendency to avoid what causes anxiety is what psychologists typically refer to when they use the term psychological defense. It is because of this tendency to avoid events we find distressing that the effects of avoidance operate in a silent and often hidden manner.
We do not walk around in an anxious state if we can help it. Rather we avoid doing those things, going to those places, or seeing those people that generate anxiety, and if we are really successful at this then we do not even notice that we have a problem. It as if there is a set of invisible fences that we have constructed and neither we nor others even notice how much of our life is constrained by those hidden barriers. This is the remarkable thing about anxiety, we can have it and not even know it.
The fact that we are able to keep much of our anxiety under control through avoidance does not mean that it has no effect in our life. Quite the contrary, it has an enormous impact on us. Not only do we avoid people, places, and things, that make us feel uncomfortable, but we also avoid our own thoughts and experiences when they make us feel uncomfortable. This “turning away” from our own experiences has pervasive effects in our life and probably accounts for more difficulties in our life than any other single source.
If we habitually avoid uncomfortable thoughts and experiences then eventually the connection with our subjective experiences will be adversely affected; the very experiences which give meaning and purpose to our lives. All of our perceptions will become muted and distorted to greater or lesser degrees depending on the severity of the avoidance and this has far reaching consequences. We will begin to lose touch with our desires, wishes, aspirations moral values and, if pushed far enough, even our fundamental sense of right and wrong. We will engage in activities for reasons neither we nor our friends can understand and which may create even further difficulties for us. Our interest in life, our ability to experience pleasure, our emotional connection with friends and even our care for family are all put at risk. We become like a ship without a rudder, and whether we end up going in circles or heading aimlessly in unknown directions, none of it is good.
Avoidance of our painful thoughts and feelings disrupts our capacity to think clearly about the very events we are reacting to and distorts our ability to find balanced solutions to them. Instead we are compulsively driven to make quick and often questionable decisions to make the problem go away. In our haste to escape from the associated anxiety we may even reach false conclusions that only create more complications for us.
Finally, if anxiety and the reactive tendency to avoid it enters our life during our early years then the development of crucial skills required to live a normal life will be interrupted. As the years go by and we slowly learn maladaptive ways of responding, these become our tools for engaging with the world. Unfortunately, the world almost always reacts back in harsh rather than gentle ways to people who are socially awkward, emotionally inappropriate or, excessively timid . As each day progresses and we are faced with daily challenges to which we are unable and unprepared to respond, everything begins to slip sideways.
Unfortunately, people who are experts at reducing or avoiding anxiety in the short terms often create even more complicated outcomes in the long term that eventually must be faced. As a psychologist, one of my specialty areas is working with anxiety. As this article suggests, it is not just anxiety but the results of anxiety that creates so many of the difficulties we face in our daily living. The fact that it so often operates underground creates its own set of unique challenges when trying to address this issue and often requires considerable commitment and dedication on the part of the person who is seeking assistance to resolve it.