In previous posts we looked at what happens when we try to problem solve
our emotions, neither of which tend to work. When we’ve giving up on trying to problem solve or control our emotions, our next step is often to try to suppress our emotions, or ignore them completely.
But this doesn’t work either. Maybe we can avoid our emotions for a while, but they keep coming back. Just like a child craving attention, our emotions won’t go away until we deal with them, and each time we try to ignore them, they come back louder and more intrusive.
In the Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Depression, based on Acceptance and Commitment therapy, Kirk Stroshal and Patricia Robinson note that:
Research shows us that conscious attempts to suppress or avoid thoughts, feelings, or memories will actually increase their intensity. So if you try to suppress an emotion, memory, or thought that you don’t like, it will just come back to you in spades. It’s another paradox: You can’t control which feelings, thoughts, memories, or sensations show up in the first place, but you can make them much worse by trying to suppress them.
In the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy-based Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, John Forsyth and Georg Eifert explain that
The reason why you can’t avoid and run away from feelings the same way that you might run from or avoid dangerous objects or situations has to do with the source of the emotional pain. That source is you.
The bottom line is that your thoughts and feelings always go with you wherever you go. You cannot escape or avoid your feelings by going somewhere else for one simple reason: they are part of you. You take them with you everywhere, along with everything else going on inside your mind and body.
Because you can’t avoid your thoughts and feelings, as Stroshal and Robinson point out:
This leaves you with one option for emotional control: avoid situations and circumstances that might trigger these reactions. If you pursue this strategy, your life space shrinks as the number of things you must avoid expands. And the irony is that the mental events you’re trying to suppress are still there!
Avoidance winds up seriously limiting how you live your life. If you’re depressed, and start avoiding situations that may trigger more distressing thoughts or feelings, you wind up isolating yourself and not taking part in things that could actually help you feel better. As a result, you end up feeling even more depressed.
If you’re experiencing anxiety, you might start to avoid anything that could provoke anxiety, such as social situations, travel, furthering your career, and so on. As a result your quality of life begins to suffer.
Once you start avoiding some things, it’s easy to keep finding other things you need to avoid, until eventually your life becomes so restricted that you no longer take part in the things that are most important to you. For these reasons, in acceptance and commitment therapy, emotional avoidance is regarded as one of the main factors that contributes to depression and anxiety.
So if problem-solving our emotions doesn’t work, and we can’t control our emotions, and we can’t suppress or avoid them, what can we do when faced with strong, unpleasant emotions? Counselling and therapy can help you learn how to relate to your emotions in more effective ways, and some of the ways I work with clients in therapy to help them deal with emotions will be topics of future blog posts.
I’m a Toronto therapist specializing in helping people overcome depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
For more information about how I can help you learn to deal with your emotions, or to make an appointment for counselling or therapy in Toronto, please call me at 416-516-6024 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.