Effects on Health: The Physiology of Avoidance Versus Acceptance
Now let’s take a look at the effects of experiential avoidance on health so we can see why it is so important for those of us with chronic medical conditions to become aware of experiential avoidance and strive to reduce it in our lives. Our health is already compromised; we cannot afford to worsen it needlessly.
Suppression of thoughts and feelings is associated with sympathetic arousal (fight or flight), including hypertension, increased heart rate and respiration, vasoconstriction, and all the other usual effects of stress. We can contrast this with the opposite of experiential avoidance: acceptance. Acceptance of our experience is associated with self-acceptance and physiological homeostasis. When the autonomic activity associated with suppression of thoughts and emotions is allowed to quiet down, balance is restored to the immune system, which does not function well during strong autonomic activity. When our stress level diminishes, functioning of the neuroendocrine system, gastrointestinal tract, and cardiovascular system improves, as does overall physiological functioning. For example, research by psychologist James Pennebaker reveals that when we stop suppressing memories of our past traumas and instead write in a journal about them, we can experience profound improvement in physiological functioning.
The result of suppressing unpleasant thoughts, emotions, images, and sensations is a constriction that contributes to dis-ease, which eventuates to disease. This constriction causes the chronic sympathetic arousal I described earlier. In fact, it affects brain function and the workings of every cell in the body. And so we see the paradox of avoidance or suppression playing out on a physiological as well as emotional level. A fascinating study conducted by research psychologists James Gross and Robert Levenson in the 1990s dramatically illustrated this fact: When study subjects were instructed to conceal their emotional expression while simply watching an emotional film, they experienced a paradoxical increase in sympathetic drive.
In other studies where subjects were instructed to control their physiological sensations, they, too, reported increased emotional distress and evidenced increased sympathetic drive. In a 2004 article in Behavior Therapy, Dr. J. Levitt showed that when subjects were instructed to accept the sensations, on the other hand, they reported reduced emotional distress and evidenced quieting of sympathetic drive.
It’s interesting to consider the polygraph test in this light. There are many people who can fool a polygraph. One very famous Watergate conspirator was able to do that and perform many other feats that seem impossible to most people. But no one can fool the polygraph by trying to control physiological sensations because this has the effect of increasing the stress response the subject is trying to suppress: the equipment will register the stress and the subject will flunk the test. Excluding psychopaths, those who can fool the polygraph are highly skilled in psychophysiological self-regulation. They have practiced extensively while hooked up to biofeedback instrumentation or have used a polygraph itself as their biofeedback training device.
It has also been shown that the physiological effects of experiential avoidance worsen with repetition. Repeated efforts to control our thoughts, images, feelings, emotions, and bodily sensations increase our negative judgments of these internal events when they recur. This leads to even more concerted efforts to control them. That 2004 study by Levitt revealed that this cycle of progressively increasing reactivity leads to chronic sympathetic arousal, and this can be devastating to our health.
Dr. Joanne Dahl demonstrated that in general, pain and physiological functioning worsen in proportion to the degree of resistance to what we experience. We heal faster when we are more open and accepting of our situation. This is why pain medications can sometimes actually speed healing and recovery; they allow us to relax into our experience.