07/25/2016 12:11 EDT | Updated 07/25/2016 12:59 EDT

How To Deal With The Emotions You've Been Avoiding

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Anxious Black woman resting chin on hands

As a registered psychotherapist, I know, intimately, how much stigma there is around counselling. People often view talking to a mental health professional as a sign of weakness. I've lost count of how many times I've heard the phrase, "that's what friends are for..." Unfortunately, the issues that usually bring people to counselling (mental illness, abuse, trauma, relationship problems, addiction, etc.) are also stigmatized, so people are unlikely to actually share them with their friends.

What's far more socially acceptable, though, and, also far more dangerous, is to use various forms of consumption to"cope" with one's problems. I'm talking about food and alcohol primarily, but sometimes shopping trips for clothes, electronic devices or other material objects.

Think about it: How often do you hear about people devouring a big tub of ice cream to deal with a bad break up, or downing a few glasses of wine to make up for a stressful day. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, but in my practice I see how all too often these behaviours become habits. If they occur with enough frequency, they can also lead to health problems, and can interfere with relationships and general functioning.

These behaviours distract people from their negative emotions.

I believe this is why a lot of folks claim that food, shopping and sex, among other things, are addictive. They are not, in the strict sense, physical addictions, like one develops to crack cocaine or nicotine. But because people begin using them as a coping strategy, they develop a psychological dependence. They just have no other coping skills available to them.

Humans are inherently hedonistic, which comes from our most basic survival instinct. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, most of the time, will keep us out of harm's way. But this doesn't always apply when it comes to negative emotions. I have noticed among many of my clients that they fear psychic pain far more than physical discomfort of any kind. Consequently, most will do anything they can to ignore their negative emotions. This means that they frequently employ avoidant coping strategies, which is exactly what emotional eating, drinking, shopping, etc., are.

These behaviours distract people from their negative emotions. Yet, the soothing effect is temporary; even worse, they do nothing to address the underlying problem and, in fact, cause additional ones. Keep in mind, even basically benign or even positive behaviours, like exercise, can become destructive if taken to an extreme.

Failing to directly acknowledge and deal with one's inner demons (which we all have!) is rarely effective. When it comes to trauma, in particular, pushing away the thoughts and feelings can often exacerbate the intensity of the symptoms. The more you try to evade the problem, the more the internal pressure will build, until you explode. The problem won't just go away on its own.

So, if you think you may be an avoidant coper, what should you do? Seek help! Even if you don't have an actual addiction to your drug of choice, your use may be spiraling out of control, or you may have simply developed a hard to break. No shame in that. Keep in mind that trained counsellors are not the same as friends. We are trained to help with these kinds of issues.

If avoidant coping is your problem, it's not a matter of lying on a couch and free associating, or having your dreams analysed (though these approaches may be helpful to some people), we can give you practical tools to address the emotions are you are avoiding (many people aren't even aware of the what!) and what the causes/triggers are. Working together, we can help you develop a wide repertoire of active coping strategies that address the underlying issues, and don't come with hazardous consequences.

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