Experiential Avoidance: Why You Won’t Heal Chronic Pain Without Addressing This First

Experiential avoidance makes us flee to the hills instead of addressing our chronic pain.

Why do things that are ultimately good for us always suck?

Dieting = boring.

Fitness = lame.

Finishing an assignment = argh!

How often have you started something good, only for it to fall by the wayside?

You’ve just been acquainted with a little thing called experiential avoidance, and it’s sabotaging your recovery from chronic pain.

Seriously, how hard is it to lose some weight to get fit, or save some extra money by not eating out, or escape a bad job or a better one? And don’t even get me started with working on chronic pain. Impossible!

In this article, I’ll explain exactly how experiential avoidance distorts our thinking when it comes to chronic pain.

You’ll be armed with the skills to face unpleasant situations while on your path to recovery from chronic pain.

Motivation. Motivation. Motivation.

Our whole life is about moving towards something we desire and away from something that is dangerous for us. 

Escaping one place and lading in another. 

And this is good if you are a monkey with the intelligence of a three-year-old toddler.

Humanity survived by escaping bad things like sabre tooth tigers, while heading towards good things like clothing, food, and shelter. It’s how we survived and spread our DNA across the earth. 

Humans are motivated towards good things, and away from bad things.
Human motivation in a nutshell. But what happens when good things involve some discomfort?

This behavior is good for external threats. But it’s not so great when it comes to internal threats (like bad thoughts, anxieties, or self doubt).

These internal things can’t hurt us like stepping out in front of a speeding truck, but they can irreparably derail our goals and values.

Every Goal Has Hurdles

When we take those baby steps towards greatness, we feel a flood of negative emotions. Am I good enough? Will this really work? What about my friends and family? I don’t think I can do this.

The fear is no different to being ambushed by that sabre tooth tiger.

The negative thoughts and emotions aren’t bad in themselves. Instead its how we respond to them.

So what do we do instead?

The technical term is: experiential avoidance.

The non-technical term is: taking the easy way out.

When we move towards a big goal, disruptive thoughts can get in our way.

Now what happens when you decide to binge Netflix instead of heading outdoors for some sunshine?

Relief. (after all, you’ve just escaped a feeling of imminent danger)

And it’s addictive. Like really addictive. This is negative reinforcement.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work in the long term.

It’s a barrier to getting to where we really want to be in life. It kills out grand plans and ambitions dead in their tracks. It stifles our 5-year-plans before day one.

It makes us run back into our cave home like a scared little cave baby.

See the example below.

How does this play out in our lives?

Let’s say we’ve resolved to go to the gym to get fit!

Before we even walk through the door you get hit by a flood of negative thoughts.

“Everyone else will laugh at me”, “I won’t be able to lift much weight”, “I don’t look good in gym clothes”, “I’m going to be in pain”.

Danger! Danger!

Warning: maybe going to the gym isn’t a good idea after all.

Then we reschedule our first session. You can always catch another one.

(Sweet, sweet relief!)

The next week we cancel our membership.

Cancelling on our big 12-month goals obviously isn’t ideal. So what can we do instead?

So What Can We Do About Experiential Avoidance?

Ultimately, doing good things is always going to be hard. There is no sugarcoating it.

(But you didn’t come here for me to gloss over the truth, right?)

I think I know what is stopping you.

You just don’t know what the end goal is.

It’s easy to quantify what finishing a 10 mile run in under two hours looks like. Or shedding 5 extra pounds before summer. Even getting a credit mark on your college degree. Saving $700 before Christmas.

You get the idea. Quantify it.

Enter step number one:

1) Know what being free of pain would look like.

How would your life be different for the better? What is the first thing you would do if you were free of pain? What are you most excited about? What really matters most to you? What is a realistic time?

2) Know that you will experience difficulty along the way.

Getting honest about your attitude to pain. Be open to meditation and yoga. Wake up 30 min earlier each day to work on a chronic pain recovery program. Pushing yourself just a little bit when it comes to getting some exercise.

These new uncomfortable emotions indicate you are heading in the right direction towards your goal.

You can’t change your life for the better without worrying about failure.

It’s just part of being human.

So why not practice being more flexible, adaptable, and willing to take a few calculated risks? 

You may even find it exciting or interesting.

Don’t Believe Me When It Comes To Experiential Avoidance And Chronic pain?

Research has shown better chronic pain health outcomes for those who tackle experiential avoidance.
Experiential avoidance and self-compassion in chronic pain.
Joana Costa, José Pinto-Gouveia (2013)

Check out this work by a team of researchers in Portugal. They used this questionnaire to assess experiential avoidance and coping mechanisms in 103 adults with chronic pain.

Better outcomes were found in those who embraced their pain on the way to their recovery goal, rather than avoiding it altogether.

“research has shown that patients may achieve better overall adjustment to chronic pain if they reduce their avoidance and other attempts to control pain, accept it, and direct their efforts toward goals they can achieve.”

The same author’s said that experiential avoidance with chronic pain can be akin to a self-protective coping strategy. This coping strategy often turns sour when it is applied rigidly and inflexibly. Under this cloud, your time, effort, and energy is dedicated to managing, controlling, or struggling with the unwanted experience.

The more you focus on avoiding pain altogether, the more central pain is to your life.

Your values and goals are lost by the wayside. 

I mean, who can recover from chronic pain if you are spending all your energy avoiding it.

Conclusion [Two Quick Points]

This blew my chronic pain out of the water when I first learnt about experiential avoidance.

I was caught in the death-spiral of avoidance when it came to healing from my chronic pain. It felt good. But it only screwed me over in the long term.

Take heart in knowing that you can travel towards a final destination with a few growls of a sabre-toothed tiger echoing in the distance.

I will leave the final two points over to you as a reminder:

1) Articulate your goals.

2) Start moving towards them today, knowing it may be uncomfortable at first.

(Just sprinkle in a healthy dose of self-compassion)

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