Emotional Avoidance: What Is It and How to Overcome It?

Emotional avoidance leaves us without tools to cope with what happens to us. What to do to overcome it? Discover some tips.
Emotional Avoidance: What Is It and How to Overcome It?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 13 January, 2023

On more than one occasion we may wish we were like the turtles: we could hide under our shells and wait for the storm to pass. Emotional avoidance leads us to believe that “pretending nothing is happening” is a valid solution.

However, it really is just “looking without seeing”. Therefore, we may know something happened out there, but we don’t want to acknowledge it, much less confront it. Of course, acting in this way does not work and definitely has its consequences. What are they? We’ll take a close look in this article.

What is emotional avoidance?

Emotional avoidance could be thought of as a defense mechanism that leads us to deny the emotions we experience in a given situation. However, what may begin as a way of preserving ourselves, ends up turning against us, since it leaves us without resources and without the possibility of acting.

Given that emotions are a natural, necessary, and adaptive response of our body to provide us with certain information, trying to avoid them is an attempt to deny ourselves. It means ignoring what the body is already communicating to us in some way.

This is a maladaptive way of responding to a problem. In the short term, we may be spared a bad moment, stress, or embarrassment. However, in the long term, we will have internalized that frustration or embarrassment, and we will repeat the message that we are not capable of handling it over and over again. In the end, we only reinforce that initial fear.

Emotional avoidance
Emotional avoidance prevents us from recognizing emotions in the present moment and generates conflicts in the medium and long term.

We think you may be interested in reading this, too: 13 Easy Strategies to Free Your Mind and Manage Your Emotions

The consequences of emotional avoidance

A study shared through the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research exposes that emotional avoidance carries physical and mental health consequences. In itself, it becomes a barrier to achieving a state of well-being. Some of its effects are the following:

  • Skin blemishes, psychosomatic illnesses, and difficulties in falling asleep may appear.
  • Compensatory type actions are generated, but with little sense or excessive. For example, we may spend a lot of time on social networks or in front of the TV in order to escape and not think about the issue that is troubling us.
  • We impoverish our emotional world. Our responses become stereotyped, and automatic, with an inadequate emotional tone and little connection to what we are really feeling. This not only harms ourselves, but also interferes with our relationships.
  • We buildfacades” and appear to be people we are not by not wanting to get in touch with what we truly feel. In this way, we end up being complacent with others and let ourselves be guided by other people’s emotions while discarding our own.
  • We miss out on opportunities to enjoy ourselves, to get to know ourselves, and to truly give ourselves to others. In certain situations, we may even stop going to places because we’re afraid that our emotions will be “triggered”.
  • On the other hand, it prevents us from setting healthy boundaries. By seeking to avoid conflict, we are not clear with others, so it’s possible that the situation that bothers us is repeated over and over again.

How to overcome emotional avoidance

As detailed in an article reported in Psychotherapy Academy , it is of utmost importance to confront emotional avoidance. First of all, it’s important to identify and validate emotions in order to manage them. Let’s take a look at some strategies in detail.

Recognize your feelings

Start by recognizing what you are feeling. Do a “brainstorm” about that emotion, do not discard any of them. Give them a name: anger, rage, helplessness, feelings of injustice, frustration, etc.

Do breathing exercises

You can also take a few minutes and breathe. This is a way to calm down and prevent the emotion from overwhelming you. And, as detailed by research in Frontiers in Psychology, this strategy helps mitigate stress and anxiety by reducing your cortisol levels.

Accept your emotions

After taking a few minutes to breathe, you must allow yourself to feel that emotion and accept it. Don’t judge yourself as “sentimental,” “incompetent,” “silly,” or any other label.

Think about what to do with that emotion

Next is to think about what you can do with that emotion. This is about looking for options for what you are feeling. For example, if you feel angry with a friend because of an offensive comment, what could you do? What would you feel comfortable with? Analyze the pros and cons and then “map out” different plans to choose the one that makes you feel good.

Recognize the power of emotions

On the other hand, it’s important to avoid the place where showing emotions is synonymous with weak people. On the contrary, experiencing emotions increases your strength and self-knowledge.

In this sense, you can learn from emotions, interpret the message they want to give you, and take charge of them in order to find a solution or alternative.

Do not label any emotions as “negative”

It’s also important to stop labeling emotions as negative. It’s better to label them as uncomfortable or dysfunctional. It is natural to show up and feel them, as they indicate that you dislike something.

Validate and acknowledge your emotions

Choose some way to make room for your emotions and acknowledge them. For example, it can be through an emotion journal, where you write down how you feel and what you do about it. You can also find a creative way to accept and transform them, through storytelling, art, etc.

Emotional avoidance
To overcome emotional avoidance you need to pause to accept, validate and cope with what you are experiencing.

Like this article? You may also like to read: 7 Toxic Emotions that are Keeping You from Being Happy

Emotional avoidance, the elephant in the room

The more we try to avoid an emotion, the more we become chained to it. That is, if we make the effort to avoid thinking about something, the more body, and entity we give it, the more present it becomes and the more energy it consumes.

Emotional avoidance is the dirt swept under the rug – it may be well covered, but it’s still there.

What we must do is be brave and accept what happens to us and how we feel about it. Try to coexist temporarily with the discomfort and anguish that this emotion generates, but then take a push to turn the course and process it. This is the healthiest thing to do for our physical and mental health.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Jainish Patel, Prittesh Patel (2019) Consequences of Repression of Emotion: Physical Health, Mental Health and General Well Being. International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research – 1(3):16-21.
  • Gantiva Díaz, Carlos Andrés; Luna Viveros, Andrea; Dávila, Ana María; Salgado, María José. Estrategias de afrontamiento en personas con ansiedad Psychologia. Avances de la disciplina, vol. 4, núm. 1, enero-junio, 2010, pp. 63-72. Universidad de San Buenaventura. Bogotá, Colombia
  • Rothbaum, B. (Oct 14, 2020). Addressing PTSD Emotional Avoidance and Anxiety Sensitivity: Tips for Therapists. Psychotherapy Academy. Available in https://psychotherapyacademy.org/pe-trauma-training-ptsd/addressing-ptsd-emotional-avoidance-and-anxiety-sensitivity-tips-for-therapists/
  • Oblitas Guadalupe, Luis Armando , & Piqueras Rodríguez, José Antonio , & Martínez González, Agustín Ernesto , & Ramos Linares, Victoriano (2009). EMOCIONES NEGATIVAS Y SU IMPACTO EN LA SALUD MENTAL Y FÍSICA. Suma Psicológica, 16(2),85-112.[fecha de Consulta 5 de Octubre de 2022]. ISSN: 0121-4381. Disponible en: https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=134213131007
  • Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, Zhang H, Duan NY, Shi YT, Wei GX, Li YF. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 2017 Jun 6;8:874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874. PMID: 28626434; PMCID: PMC5455070.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.