Are You Avoiding Your Grief?
By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | March 2, 2018
Understanding the difference between healthy distraction and avoidance
Grief feels overwhelming and unbearable at times. It leads to physical changes such as muscle tension and fatigue. Grief can make clear thinking difficult. Making decisions and problem solving may seem impossible. In the throes of grief, even the simplest tasks feel like monumental undertakings. Grieving requires a tremendous amount of effort and energy, just like a fulltime job. If you are already working, managing a household, or rearing children, you are working double and triple overtime.
A fundamental component of healthy grieving is to courageously experience the pain and sorrow associated with loss. Equally important is giving yourself permission to take breaks away from your grief. Most of us engage in activities that distract or comfort us when we experience unpleasant and intense thoughts and feelings. Taking breaks is essential to your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But, trying to over-escape and avoid our reality can actually feed and worsen the experience. This article will help you answer the question: “Are you avoiding your grief?”
Elements of Healthy Distraction
There is a fine line between healthy distraction and avoidance of unpleasant thoughts and emotions. If we aren’t careful, the activities we choose can lead us to experience more of the very thing we are trying to avoid. The key is to utilize breaks to build strength to confront unpleasant emotions. To use a sports analogy, a “time out” always requires a time back in. The goal of healthy distraction is to reduce the intensity of unpleasant emotions so that we can more effectively manage them and develop creative solutions to the things that are troubling us.
Like grief itself, the line between healthy distraction and avoidance is unique to each of us. Below are elements of healthy distraction to use as a guide for finding your personal balance:
Healthy distraction focuses on your well-being
Activities that are fortifying and rejuvenating will help you more effectively cope with your loss and find the energy to go about the business of living. Examples include relaxation or meditation. If done correctly, you will feel replenished, energized, grounded, and more compassionate towards yourself and others.
Healthy distraction is deliberate
Deliberate action means to think carefully and to make decisions with a specific intention. This often translates to a slow and calculated pace of careful deliberation. These principles are the cornerstones of mindfulness, the psychological art of being fully awake in the present moment. The goal of mindfulness is to act with clarity and intent. Mindful action requires conscious thinking in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.
Healthy distraction leaves you feeling restored
Ask yourself what activities are healing for you. Some activities may help you feel better initially but worse quickly thereafter. For example, drinking an entire bottle of wine on a weeknight may help you relax in the short term, yet will be detrimental later that night and the next day. Similarly, a midnight TV binge will focus your attention away from your troubles, yet will leave you bleary eyed and sleep deprived.
Healthy distraction is engaging
Healthy distraction isn’t limited to relaxation. It should also include aspects that keep your mind and body occupied. Activities that help you keep in touch with your creativity and sense of playfulness can reduce feelings of fear and dread. Focusing on something positive opens up space to decompress, achieve perspective. Examples of engaging activities include exercise, gardening, going to a lecture, out to lunch with friends, cooking, playing solitaire, playing mah jongg, listening to live music, crafting, or scrapbooking.
Healthy distraction is practical
Activities that provide a break away from your pain should not be a drain on your resources. It may tempt you to think that you need pampering rituals such as a massage or a day at the spa to make you feel cared for, even if that means overextending yourself financially. Remember that budget-friendly self-care options are available. For example, reading a guilty pleasure novel you’ve borrowed from the library, a bubble bath with bath salts that smell nice, taking a walk with a neighbor, or watching a light-hearted comedy on TV.
Healthy distraction involves others
A “time out” can mean taking time alone, but it does not mean isolating yourself. Choosing to engage with people that care about you can give you that extra boost of motivation and energy to keep going. Being with others can also help you find perspective and have a chance to think of someone other than yourself. Consider volunteering or doing something nice for someone as a way to help distract you from your troubles.
Use these guidelines to ensure that your decisions are mindful and deliberate:
- Pause and vocalize what you are doing before you begin.
- Recognize unpleasant emotions and accept them as a normal part of the grieving process.
- Resist the impulse to “push away” the emotion. Rather, create a plan to distract yourself from the pain with positive action.
- Be conscious of the intention of your activity, which should be to reduce the intensity of the unpleasant emotion so it is easier to manage.
We have learned that healthy distraction is noticing and acknowledging – and then doing. Avoidance, on the other hand, is escaping our reality and ignoring our unpleasant and intense emotions. Avoidance may feel good but does not have additional benefits beyond the immediate sense of gratification. It is an easy activity that gives us momentary pleasure but does not move us in the direction of understanding more about ourselves and moving forward feeling rejuvenated. If your activities are impulsive, detrimental to your body, reckless, dangerous, straining your finances, or causing additional stress, you may be in the avoidance “danger zone.” Examples include excessive shopping, drinking too much, overeating, taking pills, and being sexually overactive.
Avoidance is part of human nature, and we are all familiar with the concept. For example, a young child will run away from his or her parents to avoid being punished. As adults we may avoid preparing for a presentation at work because we do not want to confront the fear of failure. Instead, we procrastinate or clean out the refrigerator instead! A hallmark of avoidant coping is when we put more effort and thought into how to avoid the activity than finding ways to confront it.
Avoidant coping can take on many forms, but the consistent pattern is this:
Stressful trigger → negative thought and physical response → feeling overwhelmed → avoid activity or thoughts that involve the trigger
Avoidance is part of the human condition: immediate gratification or immediate avoidance of unpleasant or unwanted situation. And, it is often reflexive, that is, we enjoy the things that bring us pleasure and escape the things that bring us pain. Sometimes in the immediate moment, that reflex is called upon for our survival and adaptation. For example, during or after a significant trauma we can experience emotional numbness, feelings of unreality, even disconnection from our own bodies. In the short-term, the adaptive function helps mobilize the mind and body for survival in what we call the fight-or-flight response. In the long term, if the traumatic memories, feelings, and triggers continue to be avoided, they may maintain – even intensify – the trauma symptoms.
The following questions will help you understand more about the function behind your avoidance coping:
- What am I trying to avoid?
- What has avoidance coping cost me?
- How much time is spent on these activities of avoidance?
- Is the act of avoidance due to fear of facing something or someone?
A healthy expression of grieving involves finding balance between facing the unpleasant emotions surrounding your grief and allowing a reprieve from the pain. Healthy distraction will help you build strength to cope with your grief more effectively.
To ensure that you are practicing healthy distraction and not avoiding your pain, approach activities mindfully with one, or both of the following intentions:
- To reduce the intensity of the negative emotion so it is easier to manage, and allows you to later return to the emotion and process it when you’re in a better position to come up with a creative resolution.
- To allow time for solutions to arise that weren’t obvious in the intensity of the moment.
Distraction is not an excuse to indulge in things you want to do or avoid other necessary activities. Be honest with yourself and ask the question: “Is this activity assisting me to better myself and re-enter a state of balance?” If the answer is ‘yes,’ then proceed. If ‘no,’ consider your actions a method of avoidance.