Emotional Distraction or Avoidance?

Written By: Emily Peterson, MS, LPC

When we experience intense emotions, our impulse is to get rid of the emotions as fast as possible. Why would I want to feel incredibly scared or hopeless or angry if I can feel something else? While a short-term fix seems tempting when you are experiencing intense emotions, it is not going to work long-term.

Using avoidance as a coping strategy is a short-term fix. Avoidance can help you temporarily suppress or escape from emotions or issues, but they will always resurface. Kind of like if you were to cut your leg on a hike and put a Band-Aid on it. This will help keep dirt out of the wound for the rest of the hike, but long-term, if you do not clean the wound and bandage it more securely, you will most likely get infected and have to deal with worse problems.

Since these underlying problems always resurface, this makes avoidance a less effective coping tool because it prevents us from moving forward. One way to tell if you’ve been using avoidance is if you feel that if you are revisiting “old issues” over and over again. This is one indicator that you are not working through the core issues contributing to the emotional reaction; and instead, temporarily avoiding the problem.

Distraction can be a more effective coping strategy because it is intentional and limited. If we find ourselves running on emotions, it is very difficult for our brains to think rationally and logically. It may be in our best interest to distract ourselves for a brief period of time in order for our brains to regain control of rational and logical thought processes. This allows our emotions to “calm down” and become less intense; making them less painful to experience. Distraction also allows us to feel in control when our emotions may make us feel out of control.

Here’s an example to help illustrate the difference!

Example: John is in a long-distance relationship. Lately, when John visits his significant other and he has to leave to go home, he feels very anxious, scared, and irritable. He even feels sick the day before he has to leave.

Avoidance:

  • Because these feelings are uncomfortable, John doesn’t want to feel them. So, when he plans to visit again, he may make an excuse to not go on the trip and cancel at the last minute.
  • John doesn’t want to feel anxious, scared, and irritable at the end of the trip, and thinks not visiting will prevent these emotions from happening. However, the fear and anxiety still come up, and now he feels other emotions (anger, sadness, shame) about not going as well.
  • Avoiding a visit may become a theme in their relationship, and over time, John’s significant other breaks up with him.

Distraction:

  • John recognizes he is feeling intense emotions. On his flight home, he uses distractions like talking on the phone with his dad, playing Candy Crush, and watching funny YouTube videos until he feels less anxious and scared. The emotions John was feeling may still be lingering, but he feels he is more clear-headed and able to think things through.
  • He decides to reflect on where those intense emotions were coming from. John might discover that he’s worried about losing his significant other now that they are long-distance. Thinking about this might bring the anxiety and fear back, and he can use another distraction if the emotions get to be too much to sit with.
  • Instead of keeping his fears to himself, John talks with his significant other about his worries about long-distance relationships. This opens the door for more communication on this subject and strengthens their relationship.

 

Sure, avoidance is the easier one in the moment, and that is often why we choose to use this strategy. We believe it is quick and efficient, but what we do not take into account is the long-term effects avoidance can have.

Now, I know what you are thinking, “You want me to confront my emotions after I just got through calming myself down enough to feel better?” Well… yes. It does not have to be scary to connect to our emotions. Our emotions are what make use uniquely human and we feel each of them for a reason. Sometimes emotions are uncomfortable, and sometimes they are wonderful. If we could avoid the uncomfortable emotions and only allow ourselves to feel the wonderful ones, they would become less meaningful.

It’s okay to feel your feelings. Knowing when to distract and when to confront your emotions takes some time to learn, but it can be much more beneficial than avoidance.