Whenever I receive good news or do something fun, I think of which photo or post I can upload to social media.
A fun beach day, a new gym personal record or buying a house are all great fodder. The opposite isn’t true ‒ for me, at least. You’ll rarely see me post a beach photo if I feel like I gained weight, a selfie from the couch when I skipped the gym or a selfie of me crying because my late father won’t be there to help me move into my new home.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. About 36% of teens say they spend too much time on social media, according to Pew Research Center findings. It makes sense for digital natives to use that space to encompass their total selves, but for this millennial, it’s hard to acknowledge bad news on social media. It makes it permanent and all the more real.
Talking through hard times and grief can be therapeutic for some, but it doesn’t come naturally to most. Our culture places a high value on resilience and working through tough times. There’s even an idiom for it: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” But when the “going” has been going on for too long, it’s time to reconsider tactics.
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Recovery from stress, anxiety, grief and other mental illnesses can be non-linear and timelines vary widely, but most of us know when we’re purposely ignoring something. Pushing the bad thoughts away allows me to focus on what’s in front of me even if it leaves my stomach feeling empty, yet heavy, simultaneously.
I spoke to counseling psychologist T.M. Robinson-Mosley and licensed clinical social worker Cecille Ahrens to learn more about why we tend to push away bad thoughts and when that can become a problem.
What is avoidant behavior?
As Robinson-Mosley explained:
“After witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, it’s normal for people to feel a combination of intense fear, shock, confusion, feel numb or super overwhelmed. And sometimes all of these things at once, because our brain is trying to process and make sense of what we just experienced, or what we just saw. And so after that time, after surviving or witnessing a traumatic event, many people will have PTSD-like symptoms at first … (which) can include being unable to think about what just happened having intense fear, anxiety, feeling really angry, or guilty, or really depressed. These are all really common reactions to trauma.
“The interesting thing about this is that typically, the majority of people will have symptoms that resolve within a few weeks. So even though it will impact them in the short term … we typically see these things get better after a few weeks. So in the short term, if you’re avoiding things that make you feel uncomfortable, or it’s really hard for you to be able to listen to certain things, go to certain places, do things that remind you of that, that makes a lot of sense. And it’s actually pretty adaptive, it’s healthy coping short term. But the issue is, if feelings and symptoms persist for more than a month, or if you’re struggling emotionally within (about) three months of the traumatic event, you actually may be experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.”
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“It’s extremely common,” Ahrens added about avoidant behavior. “Avoidance is normal. I want to normalize that it’s not always like a pathological thing. It’s something that we do as humans to avoid future pain. It’s part of how we try to survive our environment … (And it only) becomes a problem when the avoidance becomes into other symptoms.”
What are some common symptoms to watch out for?
“A lot of times what will come up, that I want to categorize that there are physical symptoms, like nightmares, hyper-arousal, anxiety, just not feeling well, a lot of muscle pain, those kinds of things … Things that the untrained person won’t necessarily connect the dots,” Ahrens said. “The other more obvious signs are relationship issues, getting into conflict, irritability. An extreme example would be violence, aggression. Those are signs that there’s something going on you’re not dealing with.”
Mosley agreed, adding that we should think about a baseline of functioning and whether “you’ve seen almost a complete departure of who this person is, in a matter of months.”
“I have an acronym, it’s F.I.T., which is short for frequency, intensity and time,” Mosley explained. “So when we are looking to determine if something is growing in severity … it’s how frequently is this happening? So how intense is it? Does it feel like you can’t breathe, and you’re having a panic attack or you’re shaking, and you’re having heart palpitations, your skin is kind of clamming up on you? … And then time is the last one for the T, which is how long is this happening? How long has this been? If this is within a month, or two, and it resolves and you’re no longer feeling that level of intensity, then that makes sense.”
How can you support a loved one?
Both Mosley and Cecille firmly recommend therapy.
“It’s really hard to process (complex trauma) without a trained professional,” Ahrens said. “There are other things you can do, of course, like mindfulness intervention … maybe joining a support group, doing things that bring them joy, getting back into activities or hobbies that they find pleasurable. But it’s usually not easy to get into those things if you have a lot of symptoms.”
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“I always recommend texting or calling 988, which is 24/7 and will give people access to the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. So whether it’s you or someone you care about, if you don’t know what to do, they can literally advise you on what to do step by step,” Mosley said, adding that outside of talking to a mental health professional, you can:
- Use your networking, your resources and talk to someone
- Avoid using alcohol or drugs to cope
- Engaging in physical activities is great, whether that’s working out, taking a walk, and if that isn’t your thing, gardening, puzzling or anything you can do that’s tactile
- Eat, hydrate and get enough sleep as much as possible
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, contact a medical professional and/or call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8.
Josh Rivera is a writer and USA TODAY’s Travel editor.