Many people try to avoid anything that sparks stress, as if this will make things better. But what most people say when asked whether this strategy works for them is “no”! Why doesn’t avoiding stress work to reduce it? Well, it really depends on the kind of stress. Some stress is important to avoid, like oncoming traffic, going through red-lights, avoiding a hungry bear or an angry mob, etc.
The type of stress I want to point to here is internal. For example, counselling can be a great treatment for anxiety or depressed mood. But it only works if you “go there”. If you spend the majority of the time avoiding the feelings which brought you to counselling, you probably won’t see any reduction in those feelings after you leave the office.
Sure, it can be a helpful strategy to avoid dealing with your feelings when you’re focused on dealing with other people, like you probably do when you’re at work.
But when you’re in a counselling session or in some other place on your own or with a trusted friend, the suggestion is to allow the feelings to “be there”. In other words, allow yourself to feel however it is you are feeling. Don’t judge the feeling as if it doesn’t belong. It does belong. It belongs to you. The feeling is a part of you. That’s why you’re feeling it. If you ignore it, distract from it, or try to avoid it, you won’t learn from it. You won’t get the information it’s trying to convey to you. Not only that, by avoiding the feelings, you are actually rejecting something that is part of yourself. And what tends to happen if you reject a part of yourself is that part tends to get even more upset. It feels excluded by you, set aside, and probably gets resentful and angry – much like we would if we are rejected by someone else. If we are judged, we may feel rejected, resentful, and angry. The same goes when we reject feelings we have inside ourselves.
A client recently said to me that she wished her feeling of confusion would just go away. When I asked her what happened to her anxiety when she tried to push confusion away, she said her anxiety went up. Then I asked her what happened to her confusion when she tried to push the anxiety away. Again, she said it went up.
So, I suggested she let confusion be there, not try to reject it. By judging and trying to push away her feelings, she is actually rejecting a part of herself which she realized came back to her even more negatively. If, instead, she lets the confusion or anxiety just be there, and spends some time focusing on her breathing, which helps her stay relaxed while allowing her feelings to just be there, she discovered that “if you don’t fight it, you won’t fuel it.” Much differently from worsening her feelings by pushing them away, she realized that by not fighting them, her feelings settle on their own.
Applied to our own unpleasant feelings, this principle is key: “If you don’t fight it, you won’t fuel it.” If you try to fight them off, you just add to the stress. It’s your choice: add to the stress by trying to avoid it or breathe and allow the feelings to teach you. Breathe curiously.