As human beings, we are encoded to survive by avoiding things that are likely to cause us pain, which we have learnt in the past to induce pain or which is stressful or unpleasant: be it that giant spider sitting on the clothing line, that shoulder pain that has been ongoing for a while, or an article that you have promised to write for your upcoming practice newsletter.
In the initial phases, avoidance can work very well. By just using the part of the clothes line that the spider has not occupied, by not thinking about the article I need to write or by working around my sore shoulder, I can pretend that everything is ok and continue on my merry way. We work around it. The problem is that things very seldom remain the same. My resident clothesline spider decides to expand his territory and take up more and more of my clothesline, my shoulder pain worsens to a point that I cannot reach up beyond my shoulder and my practice manager starts sending me “reminder emails” that I cannot avoid anymore. Whilst some avoidance can be a very successful strategy to keep us safe from stressful situations, unpleasant experiences or threats, it can also become counter productive
So what have I learnt about avoidance?
1. Avoidance can be helpful when threats are real. If that spider on the clothesline turns out to really be that gastly dangerous “it’ll kill a grown man within an hour” species that Australia seems prone to having, avoiding it is probably a good idea. We can never totally avoid all the things that we want to avoid. It is seldom that avoidance makes things go away. The spider is still on the line, my shoulder still hurts and the looming newsletter article deadline is still there.
2. Avoidance feeds fear and is an all consuming voracious creature. The more we avoid the greater the problem often becomes. This is particularly so with anxiety. The more anxious I feel, the more I avoid. The more I avoid, the more anxiety I feel. As time goes by, our world becomes smaller and smaller and we feel more and more trapped.
3. Avoidance prevents us from learning that something different can happen or that what we were so fearful of is not as bad as we expected it to be. It prevents us from really experimenting and checking it out, to determine if something is really a threat or not.
What have I learnt to do about it?
1. Acknowledge the problem. We cannot do anything about a problem until we acknowledge it. For me, it was acknowledging that I had a problem in my shoulder (and in all likelihood had torn a ligament), that I was frightened of that spider and that the thought of having to sit down and write an article brought back traumatic memories of writing my thesis.
2. Start small. Be it writing notes on what you’d like to include in the article, finding out about physiotherapists or reading up about whether your resident spider is indeed as dangerous as you imagined it to be. Keep pushing yourself to be at the edge of your comfort zone. Don’t try to aim for the big wins. Small sustainable goals are more likely to get you there. Remember the tortoise and the hare.
3. Get support and help. Having someone to walk you through the journey can be invaluable. It helps give you perspective, keeps you accountable and gives you someone to whine to at the end of the day. This is particularly so if you have been avoiding a situation because of traumatic experiences. Until you stop avoiding, it will continue to intrude in your life and limit you. It might be uncomfortable but keep practicing and trying. Eventually it becomes the new normal.
To quote loosely from Vivian Greene, perhaps life is not about trying to avoid the storms but learning how to dance in the rain. Now excuse me whilst I get a broom to try to relocate my eight-legged friend for the fifth time before I head out for my physiotherapy appointment.