Research has found that chemical dependence occurs because of many factors that work together to create a condition of vulnerability. Genetic predisposition, environment, and psychological makeup all play a role in setting the stage for addiction. Experts find that psychological trauma can also play a part, as individuals attempt to avoid the unpleasant feelings associated with past traumatic experiences. This understanding has provided another option for treating chemical dependency to help these individuals return to productive lives.

What Is Experiential Avoidance?

Experiential avoidance is a combination of thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors that develop as a reaction to an event that has occurred in an individual’s life. (1) The avoidance behavior develops as a way to manage the psychological trauma that occurs as a result of the event.

In some cases, experiential avoidance can have a positive effect, allowing the individual to continue normal life in spite of the traumatizing experience. In other cases, the avoidance can be expressed as negative behavior that has a damaging impact on the individual’s life, such as chemical dependency, aggression or impulsivity. Post-traumatic stress disorder often results from these experiences, and the individual may take on a variety of behaviors to try to deal with the symptoms.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse for Experiential Avoidance

Experiential avoidance has recently benefited from increased interest as a fundamental cause in the development of a variety of psychological conditions. Its function as one of the essential causes of chemical dependency has also become better understood.

Some studies show that high-stress situations often trigger negative experiences that lead to experiential avoidance. For example, college students are often under pressure to separate from the family group, achieve high marks on their academic work, interact socially in a skillful way and appear to accomplish all these tasks effortlessly. The high rate of alcohol use in this age group appears to be a way to deal with these pressures to avoid feeling that they are falling short on any of these abilities. (2)

Treating the Damage of Psychological Trauma

Experiential avoidance has two specific parts. (3) The first is an aversion to remaining in contact with the experience that may produce negative emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations or behaviors. The second part involves actions taken to change the events that induce these negative reactions. Comprehensive counseling is required to explore the patient’s background to find the source of the avoidant behavior. Once the precipitating event or events are understood, therapy can focus on helping the patient deal with the emotions of the event and learn new behaviors to prevent relapse into substance use. A variety of therapeutic techniques may be used to deal with negative reactions, including stress reduction, mindfulness training, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Treating substance abuse and addiction often means addressing issues from the past that affect the ability to cope with today’s stresses. A high-quality treatment plan will address experiential avoidance so that individuals can achieve success in their addiction treatment.