The Cost of Avoidance
It seems that smartphones and other forms of technology have redefined and expanded how we distract ourselves. How many times have you found yourself endlessly scrolling through Facebook or playing just one more level of Candy Crush instead of being engaged in life? Electronic devices aren’t our only forms of distraction; eating, drugs, alcohol, spending money, and watching TV are just some of the common ways we opt to “check out” for a bit. But why are we distracting ourselves in the first place? Most people’s first answer would be “I’m not.” My answer would be that we engage in unhealthy distraction more often than not. We are a nation and a culture of individuals that have mastered the art of avoidance. By avoidance, I mean engaging in any activity that alleviates (or will be perceived to alleviate) discomfort. So you scroll through Facebook 10 more times because that prevents the onset of anxiety that will arise when you try to tackle the mountain of laundry piling up in the closet. Or you “crush” more candy because talking to your significant other may mean addressing feelings or situations that are best put off for another time.
Avoidance lowers our frustration tolerance (our ability to healthily combat challenging events and situations), resulting in a skewed perception of what is stressful or anxiety-provoking. We convince ourselves that the discomfort that accompanies normal, everyday upsets SHOULD not be felt. The more we avoid unhealthy distraction, the more numb and less tolerant we become.
How do we combat this?
First, we need to acknowledge that everyday discomfort and stress is normal. Get out of the mindset that nothing should ever be challenging or upsetting. Acknowledging the discomfort allows you to name what is truly happening while also permitting an increased level of acceptance.
Second, when you catch yourself avoiding, ask yourself; What am I distracting myself from and why? This gentle investigation increases our awareness and allows us to be more intentional with our actions.
Third, ask yourself if this the avoidance activity is helping you move towards or away from what it is essential to you. In other words, how is this activity serving me right now?
Lastly, be present with everything you do. Being present is more than just being mindful. I like to describe presence as a purposeful awareness. Use your five senses, especially touch, sight and sound to anchor yourself in the present moment. This can potentially bring whatever activity you are engaged in to a new level of experience. Rather than feeling acted upon, you are now doing the action.
Avoidance is one response to a real or perceived threat. The steps illustrated above are four additional ways to respond to a real or perceived threat. How would you like to be responding, with intention or with meaningless activity?