When Experiential Avoidance Is Healthy

Recently, I’ve been addressing the dangers of how cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance can prevent us from living in full contact with our present moment, lived experiences. However, there are situations where going into a trance and escaping our current experience serve a useful function. For example, when experiencing a dangerous, harmful situation over which we have no control, such as childhood sexual abuse or even certain unusual adult experiences, the healthiest thing we can do is to go somewhere else in our minds.

A Kodo Drummer concert in my imagination gets me through MRI scanners.

Although attempting to avoid our inner, subjective experiences is usually problematic, there are some situations in which it is healthy. In acute, emotionally traumatic experiences, distraction and dissociation can be healing. For example, I have experienced tremendous emotional distress in enclosed spaces such as an MRI scanner. Whenever I need to get scanned, which is way too often, I intentionally go into a trance and imagine I’m watching a performance of Kodo drummers or some other percussion group, such as Stomp the yard.

In this way, I am able to transform the booming MRI sounds into something I find nonthreatening. As for the enclosed, claustrophobic space, it ceases to exist because my eyes are closed and in my imagination, I’m somewhere else. I once chose to practice mindfulness in this setting, but I have found that in very intensely uncomfortable situations, escaping into my imagination works better for me. I also use my imagination rather than mindfulness just before going into the operating room for surgery because the pre-op period before administration of general anesthesia is a very emotionally distressful time.

Any behavior that mollifies our emotional distress in these situations is healthy. This is why the conscious decision to dissociate or distract ourselves from reality in order to have a more palatable experience during invasive medical diagnostic or treatment procedures can be a healthy choice. So, dissociation and distraction (both forms of experiential avoidance) are, on some rare occasions, effective techniques and can sometimes even contribute to mastery of difficult situations.

However, in everyday situations, distraction and dissociation have not been found to be nearly as effective as the development of mindfulness and acceptance skills and the willingness and ability to be present with all of our inner subjective experiences. Furthermore, in most cases, the paradoxical effect of experiential avoidance is in full force, regardless of whether the unwanted experience we wish to escape is a thought, belief, image, emotion, mood, or physiological sensation.

In sum, when choosing mindfulness versus experiential avoidance techniques such as dissociation or distraction, it is important to consider the severity of the situation. For example, dissociation and distraction can be very effective in minimizing acute physical pain, but they are not effective techniques in dealing with chronic physical or emotional pain.

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