We all have our own methods and reasons to use avoidance as a coping skill. Still, most of us can also identify that using avoidance to reduce anxiety in the short term can also prolong our negative emotional experiences around the thing we are avoiding. What is less discussed, however, is that avoidance itself can actually cause and worsen the anxieties we seek to reduce.
Even if we never come into contact with the object of our anxieties, our mere avoidance of the things, people, or circumstances we feel anxious about can trigger a positive feedback loop in our brains that causes anxiety to grow. This feedback loop can exist in the absence of any actual interaction with the subject of our anxieties, since our brains are not especially skilled at discerning real threats from imagined ones. In other words, our avoidance reactions to something that makes us anxious is enough evidence for our brains to reinforce the validity of that anxiety. Our brains treat the future situations and imagined outcomes we avoid as real and present dangers in the context of our heightened anxieties around them.
The relief our brains feel when we avoid a future situation further reinforces the “realness” of our anxieties and the usefulness of our avoidance. This process is exacerbated by the fact that avoidance prevents exposure to evidence that might contradict any anxiety-fueled predictions of the future. Additionally, our brains can develop the false belief that our anxious and avoidant behaviors actually helped to prevent a negative outcome.
The habit of avoidance is developed through a neurobiological process that involves the interaction between the amygdala, a portion of the brain critical for learning about aversive stimuli, and the striatum, which is involved in reward-related processing. Through this avoidance-learning process, the brain essentially wires itself to favor avoidance reactions in the face of fear-inducing stimuli. To overcome our avoidance, we must retrain our brain’s neural pathways that have formed through the reinforcement of our avoidant behaviors.
One way to rewire our brain’s learned avoidance responses is through exposure therapy, which is a proven method of treatment for anxiety. According to the model, effective treatment of avoidance (and anxiety in general) requires the activation of the brain’s “fear structure.” In other words, we have to practice putting ourselves in situations where anxiety and avoidance might arise. Activating the brain in this way creates opportunities for new information about safety to compete with existing beliefs. In my next blog post, I’ll get more into detail about how you can utilize techniques from exposure therapy in your daily life to build your confidence and break through your anxious-avoidant behaviors.
Our brains like to tell stories. Yet it is almost never the case that, when asked to retell an event, we can relay an experience in its totality. Instead, our brains build depictions of our experiences using only relevant details, as we do not encode or remember information that is extraneous to the narrative memories we construct. When we recall these memories, we think of them as condensed narratives with a beginning, middle and end.
However, our brains do not follow the same set of rules when encoding and recalling traumatic memories. Anyone who has experienced trauma knows that these memories do not always feel retrievable, nor do they feel as concrete or “narrativized” as other memories might. The recall of traumatic memories is often a visceral and chaotic experience compared to the familiar story-telling our brains are used to.
Because traumatic memories themselves feel out of control, conceptualizing how the brain experiences a traumatic memory can be similarly tricky. So, I want to share an analogy that I frequently use with clients to help them put words to their experience of remembering traumatic events.
If neutral memories are recalled like a written narrative, then traumatic memories are recalled like a set of printed photos. Retrieving a neutral memory feels like pulling a story from our mental archives and readings its contents. On the other hand, remembering a traumatic memory can feel like accidentally stumbling upon that stack of photos that were tucked away in a drawer and suddenly knocking them onto the floor.
Imagine the set of photos splatter onto the ground below you in a messy heap, and you are suddenly engrossed by their contents–a disorganized pile of moments and elements of a memory all jumbled up. As you pick up the photos and put them back in their place, you find yourself feeling stuck on what you are seeing and remembering in the photos. You may even find yourself transporting back to the memories in the photos and re-experiencing them. Just as photos transport us back to a moment in history, traumatic memories are more than just recalled–they are experienced, oftentimes in a way that blurs the distinction between the present moment and a past trauma.
This difference in how we experience traumatic memories is rooted in a key difference in how our brains store memories of traumatic experiences. Traumatic memories are disorganized partly because our brains struggle to encode the elements of a traumatic experience as a coherent memory. The high-arousal state that results from a traumatic experience affects the brain’s memory processing, which results in information is stored as fragments and snippets of data, similar to a series of photographs scattered on the floor.
When I work with survivors of trauma, I find that helping them to understand this key difference in how traumatic memories are stored helps to resolve some of the confusion and shame they may feel around their memories and the resulting mental health symptoms. Oftentimes, they do not feel in control of the “photos” that their mind stores in its drawers and crevices. These memories can be triggered unexpectedly and can remain in conscious thought in intrusive ways.
The goal of trauma therapy is not to completely sort out the photo snippets or to arrange them into a perfect narrative, but to make the experience of looking through those pictures and memory snippets more tolerable. Through the processes of building internal resources and confronting negative emotions, it is possible to learn to tolerate the sensations and emotions experienced alongside a traumatic memory without feeling overwhelmed by them. In short, the brain’s ability to shape the memory of an experience can also be harnessed to give relief to those suffering from the effects of trauma.
Our brains are constantly (and mostly unconsciously) scanning our environments for information about how others around us are perceiving us. To state an obvious truth, humans are a social species, meaning we live and develop most optimally in the context of others. Thus, we feel safest and most secure when others choose to be in relationship with us. To optimize our chances of being accepted by others, there is a part of our brain constantly looking for information to answer some fundamental questions: Am I acting in a way that is lovable? Do others want to include me? Are my behaviors and my presentation acceptable to those around me?
Rarely do we vocalize such questions, yet they are always implicitly on our minds. For instance, when we unconsciously match our body language to the person sitting across from us, we do so to foster a rapport that assists in our being accepted. And when we get dressed every morning, we do so with a part of our brain focused on how others will perceive us. Asking these questions is a normal part of being human, and we do so to avoid feeling the shame that arises as a result of feeling excluded. This shame, although painful, serves as a compass of sorts. Avoiding shame guides our behaviors back in line with what will be accepted by those around us.
In our efforts to avoid feeling shame, we also ask ourselves another related yet more fundamental question every day. The answer to this question often at the core of many of life’s most distressing experiences, including isolation, alienation, anxiety, self-doubt, depression, neglect and abuse. That question is:
Am I lovable?
When we ask about our lovability, in essence we are asking, “Am I worthy of acceptance and belonging?” This question differs from the ones above because its answer is not situational and relates instead to who we are as people. Our perception of how lovable we are affects the relationships we seek out. It influences the risks we take, and it limits our willingness to be vulnerable. The question determines how we present ourselves to the world and informs how we expect the world to treat us in return.
This question also differs from the ones above because the answer to “Am I lovable?” is often given to us early in life, as we form our sense of self and as we experience our first relationships. In our earliest years of life, we are most dependent on our family and those immediately around us. Our parents and guardians being consistently available to us can be a matter of life or death. This is also the time in which we create much of the unconscious schema we will later on use to judge the world (and to perceive how the world judges us). When we experience disruptions in our early relationships, our young brains often internalize that experience as a sign of our not being worthy of the care we need to survive.
We are mostly egocentric in early life, meaning our developing brains are mostly focused on ourselves and on getting our physical and emotional needs met. Our brains are not developed enough to suss out the intentions of another person. So when mom or dad doesn’t show up for us, we can only assume that we are simply not worthy of their showing up and loving us. As a tiny human dependent on others for survival, it is safer to assume you are unworthy of love and to adapt to that reality than to expect love and care that you do not receive.
This experience of calling our fundamental lovability into question is what researcher Louis Cozolino refers to as “core shame.” According to Cozolino in his book Why Therapy Works, the message associated with this internalized core shame is: “I am not important, valuable, or lovable enough to be secure in my relationships with my family.” Although we often do not remember the early memories that contribute to this feeling of unworthiness, we implicitly store the idea that there is a limit to how lovable we are. This shame gets carried throughout our life, and it influences how we present ourselves to the world. The fact that we cannot identify its source makes it all the more insidious–the shame seems so natural and central to our beings that we take it for granted as truth.
Experiences of trauma–especially early in life–can exacerbate the conflict around our self-perceived lovability. Our brain has a very difficult time processing trauma. Experiences like abuse, neglect, and violence are oftentimes outside of what is comprehensible in the context of our worldview. So, we shift our paradigms. We may tell ourselves that perhaps the world is not safe and that perhaps we are actually not lovable. Until we can find a way to re-process our traumatic memories to fit a healthier narrative, we oftentimes feel stuck in those trauma-based ideas about ourselves. (Seeking the help of a therapist can be extremely helpful in doing the work of processing traumatic memories, as I’ll describe in more detail next week.)
In reality, I think that we all have at least a little core shame and that we all have implicit ideas about the limits to our lovability. No one’s caregivers were perfect, and the rudimentary messages that our brains form about ourselves early in life often do not serve us later on. Still, it is difficult to completely rid ourselves of the implicit beliefs we hold, especially when the origins of those beliefs are outside of our conscious memory.
Working with a therapist can be an effective way to uncover and give a name to the core shame we feel. In therapy, we have the opportunity to shift the internal relationship we have to the part of us that feels this shame. Also, the relationship between therapist and client can itself be a source of healing and a corrective emotional experience regarding one’s perception of being lovable. In therapy, we can develop strategies to manage our shame and to feel more at peace with our sense of self.
Finding compassion for the less savory parts of ourselves is an essential first step in personal growth.
Stuck. It’s a word that I hear all the time as a therapist. It’s thrown around in first sessions as clients articulate their presenting concerns. Myself and other clinicians often use the word on our websites to convey to clients our an understanding of the problems they may face. Oftentimes, the word “stuck” is used in the context of describing things we dislike about ourselves: stuck in a rut; stuck in the post-breakup blues; stuck in the a bad habit.
We all have parts of ourselves that feel stuck- parts of who we are that we feel frustrated about and that we feel constantly at war with. These habits, feelings, behaviors and fears feel like roadblocks that seem to impede wherever it is we are going in life.
We may repeatedly set an intention to change the aspects of ourselves that we feel so at odds with. We tell ourselves: “Get your life together.” “You ought to lose some weight.” “Can’t you drink less?” “And stand up to your bullies while you’re at it!” Again and again, we try and fail to force into submission the parts of ourselves we dislike. As we do so, the self-criticism and resentment we feel towards those aspects of our being grows.
Ironically, the self-criticism we harbor in our efforts to banish certain aspects of ourselves actually work against us. Not only do we have to push past our patterns and habits, we have to dodge the storm of negativity we project onto ourselves.
Although it may seem paradoxical, it is not until we make peace with the more challenging parts of ourselves that we are able to really make change in those areas. When we do so, we free up the mental energy that was once spent on self-loathing thoughts and negative emotions. As Carl Rogers said in his book On Becoming a Person, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
I tell my clients that there is a reason that each part of them exists. Even our most frustrating habits serves (or has previously served) some purpose for us in life. Part of the healing work in therapy is acknowledging and making peace with the reasons our various parts exist. We feel a burden lifted as we shift our focus away from judging our behaviors and patterns and as we begin to look instead towards what lies beneath.
Here’s the kicker: the true origins of our more challenging parts oftentimes lie in our unconscious mind and outside of conscious recognition. The parts of us that feel most “stuck” are oftentimes encoded in our brains early in life or in response to ongoing stress or traumatic events. The behaviors and beliefs that helped us persevere in these stressful times can become limiting as our brain attempts to deploy them later on in life. Meanwhile, our conscious brains may develop all sorts of blaming narratives for why we behave in self-limiting ways, although they oftentimes don’t have the full story.
This is where working with a trained mental health professional can be very helpful. In therapy, I help my clients recognize how their core and unconscious beliefs about themselves and about the world contribute to the their sense of feeling “stuck.” In doing that work of acknowledging, my hope is that my clients can foster more self-compassion and greater understanding for the parts of themselves they hope to change.
Mind you- we don’t have to like the parts of ourselves that we want to change. And I am not promoting permissiveness towards harmful behaviors or patterns. I will, however, encourage you–just as I encourage my clients–to mull over the idea that there is a valid reason why the various parts of your being exist. Your brain is working hard to utilize all of its parts to make it through the day, and you owe it to yourself to acknowledge that truth.
Why we function best when we feel connected to others
In 1987, American television viewers were first introduced to the slogan “This is your brain on drugs.” As those words rang out from TV sets across the country, the commercial’s narrator sternly cracked an egg into a hot frying pan and displayed to viewers the scrambled mess he had made. The scene was part of an advertising campaign funded by the Partnership for a Drug Free America.
Its intent was to shock viewers into comprehending the deleterious effects that substance use could have on our brains. Of course, the scare tactics like these that were part of the War on Drugs were declared largely a failure, and the research on medicinal drug use has complicated the conversation about Our Brains on Drugs.
The effects of drugs on the brain aside, this commercial also serves as a reminder that our human brains are malleable–and thus vulnerable. Our brains need certain elements to be present in our body and in our environment for it to grow, to learn, and to function optimally.
Two of the most important of these elements are friendship and connection to others. In fact, “Your Brain on Friendship” looks and feels as different from that now-famous egg in a frying pan as one could imagine.
The experience of social inclusion and connection among humans feels like winning a neurological jackpot. According to one study, the brain reactions to feeling loved and cared for by pumping our neural networks with Oxytocin, the neurotransmitter responsible increasing warm and fuzzy feelings and decreasing stress and anxiety. In short, our brain treats and rewards social pleasure equivalently to physical pleasure.
The brain also releases more endorphins-a pain relieving and pleasure inducing neurotransmitter- when activities are done in group settings compared to in isolation. Many humans even display a lesser response of the stress hormone cortisol during interaction with adverse stimuli when a friend or loved one is present.
Moreover, social connection has even been proven to be a predictor of longevity. According to a longitudinal study of individuals from 1938 to the present day, those who reported the most satisfaction in relationships at age 50 were the healthiest (and most likely to be living) at age 80. The study posits that secure relationships protect the brains of elderly individuals from decline and that the stress of isolation can contribute to early memory decline. Another related study found that social isolation was a more important risk factor for death than inactivity and obesity.
In addition to serving as a strong predictor of emotional well-being, social attachment and connection are important ingredients to another central task for the human mind: forging a sense of self.
Our big, fat, social brains take stock of who we are based largely on how others react to us. Descriptive words like “timid” and “bossy” and “vivacious” and “grouchy” lack meaning outside of the social context and interactions which shape those terms. Similarly, the student who receives an 85% on an exam has limited information about how to feel about their score outside of the context of his peers’ reactions and feelings and outside of the context of societal expectations placed on students.
Moreover, the feelings we hold about ourselves as individuals are shaped in large part by the feelings we learned others held of us early in life. In his book Wired for Love, author and psychologist Stan Tatkin states:
“Human beings don’t start by thinking anything about themselves, good or bad. We learn to love ourselves precisely because we have experienced being loved by someone. We learn to take care of ourselves because somebody has taken care of us.”
In short, we know ourselves because others know us. We spend our lives defining and redefining ourselves in concordance with (or in reaction to) our experiences (or lack thereof) with other people.
However, Americans today are finding it more and more difficult to sustain friendship and connection, despite the evidence pinning it as an important element of mental health and wellness. According to a study by researchers at UC San Diego, 3 out of every 4 Americans experience moderate to high levels of loneliness.
There are a myriad of reasons we could point to as potential causes for this cultural loneliness. Probably high on the list is the replacement of in-person social networks with virtual ones. For some, loneliness stems from experiences with mental illness that interferes with our brains tendency towards social responsiveness. For others, loneliness may come as a result of trauma and other emotional wounds that result in a sense of isolation. Regardless of the reasons, loneliness is a universal human experience that comes part and parcel with our brain’s wiring for social connection.
For times when you feel lonely or simply want to increase those good feelings that come along with social inclusion, here are some tips to follow:
Take Stock: When we feel isolated, our brains lack those feel-good chemicals I mentioned earlier. This can cause us to spiral into some pretty bleak thoughts about our (lack of) options for social connection. Be curious and questioning in the face of those thoughts. Play detective and see what’s really available in your social network.
Reach Out: You wouldn’t wait for your plants to water themselves. Don’t wait for your social life to tend to itself either. Pro-social behaviors like reaching out to a friend in need can feel even better than being on the receiving end of help, one study shows.
Meet Up: Online and in-person meetup groups are abundant and are (rightfully) becoming more normalized by the day. These structured events might be a great option if you notice you have anxiety about meeting new people, as you can often research them ahead of time and know what to expect.
Seek Help: Sometimes we run up against sticking points in our brain that feel too big to tackle on our own, and it’s very common that these points often relate to how we relate to others. Doing some work with a therapist to better understand your experiences and to change your relationship with these sticking points can be very helpful in making changes in your life.
We human beings are well-practiced in the art of avoidance–those moments of emotionally and mentally checking out, the times when we phone it in on our efforts to connect with others, and those instances when it feels much more comfortable to sink deep into ourselves and to hide among our insecurities than it does to take the plunge into something unfamiliar. Avoidance can be subtle and can even feel benign at times–allowing our minds to drift to social media while we write a tough email, for instance.
Our brain’s penchant for avoiding the uncomfortable parts of our life boils down to an effort at self-protection and self-preservation. However, avoidance can easily beget further avoidance, and falling into the habit of avoiding can leave our brains less primed to stay present and engaged for those important moments in our life that do throw us out of our comfort zones.
When we avoid, we aren’t doing so because the alternative activity we seek out is more appealing (although it may feel at the time like we are actively choosing to play video games late into the evening, to drink a few extra beers, etc.). Our brains are not actively seeking joy in our avoidance strategies so much as they are attempting to minimize pain and discomfort. These strategies are rooted in the parts of our brain that function automatically (and mostly unconsciously) to make sure our level of emotional arousal stays within our “window of tolerance.”
Avoidance can feel very automatic and out-of-control because the mental process the underlies it (i.e. our brains’ efforts to assuage our discomfort) is indeed automatic. Moreover, the more frequently our brains utilize strategies like avoidance to temper our emotional arousal, the lower our tolerance for highly emotional experiences becomes. Just like the muscles in our arms and legs, our brains work on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. When we do not give our brains enough exposure to emotionally vulnerable and challenging experiences, our brain’s intuitive understanding of emotional equilibrium begins to fade, and we begin to experience a feedback loop of greater and greater emotional avoidance.
This process of compounding avoidance is at the heart of people’s experiences of phobias and anxiety, as the act of avoidance results in the exchange of one type of emotional pain for another. When we avoid, we are left with a lowered tolerance for emotionally arousing experiences in the long term. In the short term, we feel the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that presents when we avoid something we know to be important. Coping with that cognitive dissonance may even require us to employ even further avoidance, and thus the avoidant feedback loop continues.
Although avoidance is the product of our brain’s automatic efforts to keep our emotional arousal at a tolerable intensity, we as human beings have the capacity to shape both how our brain copes with uncomfortable emotions and to expand the amount of emotional intensity our brains can tolerate.
Here are a few of my favorite strategies for owning and dealing with avoidance:
1. Make nice with the avoidant part of your brain Remind yourself that the avoidant part of your brain is doing everything it can to keep you safe and to help avert you away from intolerable experiences. Oftentimes, we learn our strategies of avoidance in childhood, when big emotions were comparatively even larger within our small bodies and when our brains were not yet fully formed in their emotion-processing capacities.
Practice having gratitude and compassion for the work that this avoidant part of your mind has put in for you over the years. For example, perhaps it kept you from having to be present for some tough fights at home growing up, or maybe it allowed you to compartmentalize some difficult emotions in order to finish up your last semester of college. The more you can make peace with this part of your mind, the less tumultuous your efforts to utilize alternative coping strategies will be.
2. Make an avoidance list This tip is based on a concept named by Psychiatrist Dan Siegel in his parenting book The Whole Brain Child. In the book, Siegel writes about the strategy of “Name it to Tame It” to describe the process of helping children gain a sense of calm about uncomfortable and out-of-control emotional experiences. According to Siegel, applying words and labels to emotional experiences helps to engage our brain parts in ways that lower the intensity of emotional arousal.
In other words, whatever we are avoiding feels a lot bigger and scarier when it is floating around in our mind, untethered to the present reality. When we write down (or even speak out-loud) our avoidances, we label them and put parameters on them. We can own them, acknowledge them, and begin to have self-compassion about why we might be feeling avoidant. We might even notice that we feel more prepared to tackle the items on our list.
3. Have an attitude of “Let’s See” So often, the emotional distress we feel around avoidance is compounded by our own judgement towards the things we’re avoiding. Consider your self-talk around some things you avoid. (Maybe it’s something along the lines of “I’m being lazy for not exercising four days a week,” or “I’m socially incompetent and need to put myself out there more.”) Instead of forcing expectations onto yourself, play around with what I like to call a “Let’s see” attitude in those situations where you can identify avoidance. “I’m lazy and need to get in shape” becomes “Let’s see how much exercise I can get this week,” and suddenly the judgement and shame that surrounds much of our avoidance of exercise begins to melt away.
Transforming our self-talk can transform our attitude and approach to the things in life we avoid. In shifting our self-talk, we begin to open ourselves up to experiences that disconfirm our notions of what our brains can tolerate. We begin to create the habit of showing up and being present without judgement or expectations, and we can gradually begin to loosen the hold grip of avoidance on our minds.