Experiential Avoidance Disorder

19 March, 2021
This article has been written and endorsed by la psicóloga Paula Villasante
Experiential avoidance disorder can limit quality of life in several ways. People with a history of sexual abuse or generalized anxiety disorder are more likely to suffer from this condition.

Experiential avoidance disorder is a pathology in which patients rigidly and inflexibly apply certain avoidance behaviors. This can hinder the pursuit of personal goals, reduce contact with the here and now, and deteriorate their overall performance as a person.

It’s a complex problem with several psychopathological origins. Despite this, these days, there are many psychotherapy methods that are capable of producing favorable changes in a person’s quality of life.

If you are interested in discovering the main characteristics of this condition, then we invite you to continue reading.

What is experiential avoidance behavior?

Experiential avoidance is a process that involves excessive negative self-evaluation. It’s characterized by unwanted thoughts, feelings, and sensations about oneself. The person is generally unwilling to accept these negative feelings and tends to deliberately try to escape from them.

In some contexts, this repressed behavior can be seen as a self-protective strategy with the aim of preventing disastrous consequences.

An example of this can be trying not to show anxiety symptoms in a job interview. The same thing happens when trying to control the feeling of boredom when talking to an important person, or worrying about controlling your fear about the anticipated threat of having to confront something.

In these contexts, experiential avoidance can be a benign short-term strategy for managing emotional expression. As this occurs over a short period of time, the negative consequences can be minimal.

That is, when the person who carries out the avoidance doesn’t see that their life has been affected by doing so, then there is, seemingly, no problem.

However, experiential avoidance can become a problem when applied rigidly and inflexibly, as you will see below.

Experiential avoidance disorder

This pathology can be understood as an ineffective generalized behavioral class of verbally regulated avoidance.

This can be described using the classical paradigm of self-control, with the addition of more recent formulations about verbal behavior and the derived relational response.

In some way, this disorder can be considered as a special type of lack of self-control. The person has come to value the need to feel good as an absolute priority in order to develop in their day-to-day life.

For someone with this type of behavior pattern, personal performance is determined by attempts to eliminate and avoid immediate distress. However, this can lead to a general deterioration in the personal life of the affected person.

It’s a paradoxical fact that the person affected under this pattern of behavior is convinced that their plan and actions are correct and necessary in order to live.

An example of this might be thinking things like, “I can’t live with these terrible and painful thoughts. I need to do something to get rid of them.

This pattern of behavior is controlled by an immediate reduction in pain and distress (negative reinforcement) and by the extraordinary power to “do the right thing” or to be consistent with one’s own thoughts (positive reinforcement).

In other words, it means feeling that the actions you take are correct and justified in order for you to achieve your goals. A person who acts in this way will have no other options to choose a different direction.

This pattern of destructive experiential avoidance can be explained by alluding to a person’s personal situation and history. Thus, multiple longitudinal interactions, whether accidental or deliberate, favor the control of private events as if they were determinants that cause one to act.

Experiential avoidance disorder causes a large number of symptoms.
Experiential avoidance disorder is usually expressed in a very varied way, since it depends on the way in which the patient handles the situation.

So when is experiential avoidance pathological?

Experiential avoidance, per se, is a normal part of life, and doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a pathological process. However, it’s important to seek help when this avoidance starts to become habitual and leads to a larger repertoire of aversive events.

An analysis of experiential avoidance disorder has to specify the conditions in which anxiety develops to the point where it is so intense that it actually becomes a hindrance to life. This will come after several attempts to get rid of it.

Experiential avoidance disorder remains in a person’s life as long as they maintain their behavior in the contexts of evaluation, literalism, reason and verbal regulation in order to control their private feelings.

The experiential avoidance construct

It is a well-known fact in the scientific community that animals, including humans, try to avoid negative feelings and experiences. For example, when a rat receives an electric shock in a chamber, it will be reluctant to return there.

This has a clear survival value in the sense that, thanks to this ability to avoid signs of danger, the body can prevent and avoid physical damage.

However, research into all of this suggests that the problem of experiential avoidance is rooted in the literal and evaluative functions of human language and cognition. This means that verbalizing the pain can cause it to be re-experienced.

Thus, language increases the number of potential danger signals. A human being can be motivated to avoid not only external signs of real danger, but also symbolic representations of that danger.

The cognitive and affective strategies we use in experiential avoidance

This very fact that human beings are motivated to avoid aversive experiences is attested by substantial research that has drawn out common cognitive and affective strategies such as the following:

  • Thought suppression
  • Avoidance coping
  • Emotional suppression
  • Self-deception
  • Reevaluation

Cognitive strategies such as thought suppression and control include the general tendency to suppress unwanted thoughts and control them through routes such as distraction and worry.

These strategies have been shown to lead to a paradoxical increase in the occurrence of some thoughts.

Similarly, emotional suppression has been shown to be associated with poor physical and psychological health outcomes.

Avoidance coping, or the tendency to engage in behavioral avoidance strategies in response to stressful situations, is also associated with negative psychological outcomes.

Each of these strategies can be understood as experiential avoidance in the sense that they represent specific methods by which steps are taken to alter aversive private experience.

Experiential avoidance and its psychopathology

From a psychopathological point of view, there are several ways to produce experiential avoidance. Below we will discuss the three main routes.

The first way

Deliberate avoidance strategies are often verbal and involve the avoided element. A clear example is saying: “I will not think about using heroin today“, a phrase that includes the symbolic representation of heroin use.

Due to this fact, the avoided item can actually become more accessible and influence cognition and behavior.

The second way

Here, private experiences are often conditioned and, therefore, may not be amenable to verbal control strategies.

Work on the neural pathways of fear conditioning indicates that higher cortical (verbal) areas are not necessary for the creation of conditioned fear. Furthermore, the subcortical projections towards the cortex are much denser than the ones that go in the opposite direction.

Both findings suggest that the use of verbal control strategies may be ineffective for the non-verbal processes involved in the pathology.

The third way

Even if avoidance strategies are effective, they can lead to secondary problems such as a restricted life. Here we can mention efforts to prevent panic or the inability to adapt to unavoidable changes (such as processing the death of a loved one or a change of living abode.

Experiential avoidance, implicitly and explicitly, has been recognized within most systems of therapy. For example, psychodynamic therapy places a lot of emphasis on repression.

This is the process by which conscious material that’s painful or threatening is relegated to the unconscious mind.

Although behavioral and cognitive therapies have focused on changing (rather than accepting) private experiences, even within these domains, emotions and other forms of experiential avoidance have been recognized as a problem.

Cognitive therapists have recognized that unpleasant events tend to be ignored, distorted, or forgotten.

Thus, some modern behavioral therapies – such as dialectical behavior therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy – focus on accepting negative experiences rather than controlling them.

Risk factors for developing experiential avoidance disorder

There are certain predisposing factors that can be related to the appearance of experiential avoidance disorder, such as the following:

1. Substance abuse

This habit is a short-term strategy for manipulating an experience.

Even if substance abuse hasn’t been started as an experiential avoidance method as such, the effects of drugs in dysphoric or withdrawal states can maintain the pattern of abuse.

Thus, in many cases of substance abuse, experiential avoidance is usually a significant predictor. This is the case in people who drink heavily for reasons of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement.

2. Child sexual abuse

This event is related to a variety of long-term adverse correlates such as depression, generalized anxiety disorders, self-injurious behaviors, traumatic stress disorder, adult victimization, personality disorders, or substance abuse.

Avoidance in this sense is used to temporarily alleviate negative internal experiences related to abuse.

3. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and anxiety-related pathologies

GAD conceptualizes worry as a form of avoidance. It suggests that worry plays a role in avoiding internal distress.

In addition, it is negatively reinforced by the short-term reduction in distress and accompanying arousal.

Thus, it appears that maladaptive coping and self-regulation strategies can provoke anxiety-related distress through the tendency to avoid unwanted private experiences.

Experiential avoidance disorder has symptoms related to an anxiety attack.
People with GAD are more likely to have experiential avoidance disorder.

4. Deliberate self-harm

Self-harm without having any notion to commit suicide could be seen as a strategy to reduce unwanted emotional distress and arousal.

Additionally, these destructive behavior patterns are maintained and strengthened through escape conditioning and negative reinforcement.

Acceptance and commitment therapy, a way to treat this disorder

This particular therapy tries to alter the impact of emotions and cognitions. It does so by altering the struggle with them rather than trying to change their form, frequency, or the contexts that originate them.

Thus, patients can be taught to get in touch with psychological experiences, directly and completely, rather than abandoning their efforts to change altogether.

This type of therapy directs them toward domains that can be changed more easily, such as overt behavior or specific life situations, rather than thoughts and feelings.

In addition to fostering psychological acceptance, acceptance and commitment therapy attempts to weaken the verbal constructs that support dysfunctional behavior. It also discourages the degree to which customers respond to thoughts as if they were literal.

Experiential avoidance disorder is multifactorial and complex

In short, experiential avoidance appears and is related to other behaviors and problems. Treatment for this condition depends on the underlying disorder itself.

Whatever the case, approaches such as acceptance and commitment therapy have proven useful as a treatment for these types of problems.

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  • Luciano, Carmen, Páez-Blarrina, Marisa, Valdivia-Salas, Sonsoles, La Terapia de Aceptación y Compromiso (ACT) en el consumo de sustancias como estrategia de Evitación Experiencial. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology [Internet]. 2010;10(1):141-165.
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