Experiential Avoidance & Behavioral Reinforcement

April 19th, 2017 by

Having to live with pain is not something anyone really wants to do or wishes to accept as part of their reality. Nevertheless it does not make it any less of a reality by not wanting to accept or acknowledge the facts. We all experience pain in life as it is a big aspect of our physical existence. I have spoken about pain before, like in my Transforming Addictions article series. Today I simply address an attitude.

The simple fact is that pain sucks. Pain can drag us down and keep us from doing things we truly enjoy. It can undermine our emotions just as easily as our physical abilities. Pain can interfere with our mental faculties as well. However, like I stated in my above linked article, there are different kinds of pain generated for various reasons. Obviously if you break a leg it will hurt and prevent you from walking correctly, let alone running and jumping, riding a bicycle and hiking through the forest. Other kinds of pain generated from perhaps old injuries and traumas, arthritis or build up physical damage from living rough can also greatly interfere with living.

We all experience pain. We must all live with pain from time to time and some of us must live with it the majority of the time. But therein lies the challenge – Living with pain rather than simply enduring it.

When we are in pain it becomes difficult to actually Live because the voice of pain is so powerful. Pain is obviously a sensation and we exist in a world of sensations. What we feel dictates our pathways through life from the time we are born onward. Things that feel good we tend to aim for. Things that make us feel not so good we work to avoid. This is a basic instinctual trait of all animals. If it hurts we instinctually try to avoid it unless we have conditioned ourselves, or been conditioned otherwise.

This of course is why addictions are so prevalent in the world. Drugs, sex, alcohol and many others all do their part in making some aspect of a person feel good, at least for a time, usually short-term, and so the act becomes addicting. However, the addiction is usually trying to create a temporary sensation to take the place of a person’s reality. They are simply distractions, but distractions that keep a person from gaining control of the self and one’s own life. The addiction controls the person rather than the other way around.

Pain can accomplish the same thing if we allow it to. Pain can literally gain such a powerful control over us that we no longer understand how to truly live. Pain has a way of taking the reins of a person’s life and steering them through paths of avoidance rather than paths of living. Experiential avoidance can be as powerful as something like a heroin rush. When we feel pain from doing something we can choose to avoid that action. This in-turn alleviates the pain and makes us feel better. This avoidance is seen by the body and brain as a successful decision and so in itself is rewarding. This experiential avoidance can become addicting and literally prevent us from living and keep us enslaved by patterns of the avoidance of life.

Take for example having a pain in your hip. This pain came on from overuse or maybe lack of use rather than an acute injury. If you try walking it may hurt, so you slow down or avoid walking all together as you wait for the pain to go away. Maybe it hurts to sit and so you avoid sitting down to rest. Maybe continually moving and doing things distracts you enough from the pain to make it more bearable. If it hurts to walk you may avoid all your normal activities that involve walking. If it hurts to sit you likewise may avoid all activities that include sitting. Either way it is an act of avoidance based upon the mindset and internal voice of pain.

Over time this pain my not go away. It may remain and so the new patterns of avoidance stemming from the pain mindset start to become habitual, habits of avoidance; experiential avoidance. Now these new habits become excuses not to engage in many activities you may have once enjoyed, not to engage in living. Instead the habits keep you hiding in the avoidance of truly living and trapped in avoidance pattern. The pain starts to steal your life away. The pain begins to dictate how you live.

Not only might you have stopped activities involving walking, but eventually this leads to any interaction with others that might including walking; parties, family gatherings, outdoor events, shopping, traveling and so on. This avoidance may eventually change your emotional states and overall attitudes to living, interacting, hobbies, even beliefs, morals and values; how you view yourself and the world. The pain has taken you over and lives through you rather than you living your own life. The addiction to experiential avoidance consumes you. This is why behavioral reinforcement is such a powerful practice employed on every level of a social structure. From raising babies to children to adolescence; employers to employees, religious leaders to their flocks of sheep followers; even cult or clandestine government or military programs designed to change and control their subjects all use behavioral reinforcement.

That sensory reinforcement attachment we all have exists at the most primal levels of our brains and works outwardly through every aspect of what we are as living beings. Experiential avoidance is one such type of behavioral reinforcement based upon a short-term feeling and response. It is a feeling and response that tricks a person into continual compliance which can thieve the life right out from under them.

One format in learning how to live with pain rather than being controlled by it is through detailed awareness.

  • Acknowledge the pain
  • Step back and analyze the sensation
  • Accept that it is part of your physical life in the now
  • Observe that it has its own voice and wishes
  • Understand that those wishes may go against your own
  • Recognize its power
  • Respect its ability to control you if you let it
  • Become aware of the details it speaks – its own beliefs, values, habits, likes, dislikes, etc
  • See how they may differ from your own
  • Make the choice to Live with the pain as opposed to waiting for it to leave
  • Embrace your life with the pain for the time being rather than avoiding it
  • Understand that the pain is not you, it’s just a physical sensation
  • Make conscious necessary adjustments to Live with pain rather than unaware reactive ones
  • Recognize experiential avoidance patterns
  • Recognize habits that trick you into thinking you might feel pain if you engage in an activity
  • Make conscious choices to fully engage in life – choose to act
  • Do not hesitate to act – to live

Here is a small example. Most of you reading this know that I live with chronic pain. You probably equally understand that I continue to live, to make plans and strive to achieve them. Does this mean my pain goes away – no. Does this mean I am jacked up on drugs to dull my brain so I do not feel the pain so much – no. Rather I have made the choice many years ago to live even if that means living with pain rather than avoiding things I enjoy because of pain.

Yesterday, like today I am experiencing terrible amounts of pain and have been for weeks. I had to choice to sit inside on the couch nursing the pain and accomplishing little else. However, I did not choose that because that was the desire of the pain, not ME. I wanted to tear the old lattice off the front porch and build a nice new baluster railing set all the way around it. The day was cloudy, very windy and cool. The porch was hard and cold and my body hurt. My body would have hurt if I was sitting around doing nothing as well, so instead I made the choice to act, to live, to engage in an activity that I wanted to no matter the chronic pain. Did it hurt working all day on that project – yep. However, when I was done I felt good about myself and what I had accomplished rather than brooding that I didn’t do anything because of the pain.

That feeling good in my mind overpowered the feeling like crap in my body, and I accomplished something real. I realize I cannot run from the pain, I cannot hide from it and I cannot just make it disappear. I know that if I listen to the pain’s voice I would do very little and that just is not me. Therefore I make a conscious choice to act, not to spite the pain, but to live, even with the pain, because I would rather live with pain than have pain consume me and allow pain to live through me and suppress all that I am.

Some days I hurt so badly I must walk with a cane, but I rather walk with a cane than not walk at all. I have things to do, places to go, experiences waiting to be lived and so pain does not hold me back from it because I choose to take action and not be controlled by the pain. I respect it for what it is. I listen to it but at the same time realize that it is not me. I observe the pain and through the many years it has taught me a great deal about life and myself, but still the pain is not me, it is just something I live with.


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