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How Resistance Avoidance & Tension Show Up In Stress & Anxiety Cases

In a recent article I touched on the topic of resistance, which is I see as a key mental dynamic. What I mean by resistance is the mindset of not wanting or liking your current experience, or some aspect of it, and trying to push it away, reject it, somehow exclude it from awareness.

Resistance is a mind-body process. When we resist we tighten up physically, as though bracing ourselves against the undesired thing. Imagine you're in the dentists chair and the needle is about to stick you in the gum – you know it's going to hurt and you resist it. But we also literally brace against experiences where there is nothing physical to actually push away, e.g. a headache or even just an intrusive thought or memory.

This physical response goes beyond muscle tightening – there's likely to be activation of the sympathetic nervous system or SNS (which drives the “fight or flight” response). I see this regularly in my office, when my clients are hooked up to measure Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) – the basis of the well-known lie-detector machine and a measure of sympathetic activation.

Let me really spell this out: resistance reliably triggers the SNS, amplifying the very feeling you want to get rid of, and setting up a possible vicious spiral of worsening stress response.

Anxiety vs. Excitement

Anxiety and excitement both involve SNS arousal – in other words much of the body physiology overlaps. So what's the difference? Mainly it comes down to the mindset of resistance. In anxiety you don't want the experience, in excitement you welcome it – interpreting very similar feelings as thrilling rather than as danger signs.

Resistance & Avoidance

Resistance is a kind of inner avoidance. Or putting it the other way around, avoidance (which is of course a very common coping strategy) is resistance writ large, extended into the domain of behaviours. For example your client feels anxious in a crowded supermarket and thereafter avoids going there again – it's a way of holding off the experience of anxiety.

Resistance and avoidance are not intrinsically bad, and can work fine for fairly trivial matters, or in the short term. But in the longer term they tend to entrench unhelpful patterns. Every time you don't go in the supermarket you reinforce the belief that they're dangerous places that you can't handle. Every occasion where you reduce anxiety by walking away, is a near miss rather than a successful coping that builds your confidence.

Again: resistance (and avoidance) can cause a relatively minor discomfort to spiral into a major problem.

Avoidance and ACT

In Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), avoidance is an element of the hexaflex – a model of the causes of mental suffering.

Another of the six elements in this model is cognitive fusion, which is in some ways the opposite of avoidance. Cognitive fusion means over-identification with thoughts and beliefs, or a getting too close, so that you don't see any difference between your thoughts and reality. It means not seeing thoughts as just thoughts about the world that might or might not be true.

Generalising

ACT focuses on behavioural avoidance and cognitive fusion (for good pragmatic reasons), but actually we can generalise these two processes. It's possible to fuse with or over-identify with feelings, and even with behaviours. And it's possible to (try to) push away not just feeling but thoughts too, as a kind of inner avoidance strategy (what I'm calling resistance).

So summing up, we have two opposite mental dynamics, fusion and resistance-avoidance. And they can be applied to thoughts, feelings and behaviours (or urges to act).

More Examples

Here are some more examples of how these two dynamics show up in stress and emotional life.

First resistance-avoidance:

  • Towards thoughts: denial, disputation
  • Towards feelings: resistance, inner struggle, lack of peace, acceptance.
  • Towards behaviours: avoidance, withdrawal, procrastination?

Then fusion or over-identification:

  • Towards thoughts or beliefs: again, this means not recognising or being fully aware of thoughts as thoughts, so – projection, having fixed self-views, rigidity or dogmatism, religious or political extremism?
  • Towards feelings: again this means inability to properly separate oneself from one's experience, so examples include being emotionally overwhelmed, “losing it” in terms of anger or fear
  • Towards behaviours: impulsiveness, compulsions, lack of control.

Perhaps we can say more generally that excessive resistance-avoidance leads to rigidity or lack of flexibility, while excessive fusion means lack of control or chaotic. Both involve a lack of mindfulness.

Faculties To Train & Develop

It's one thing to analyse problem states – but it's only really useful to the extent that it suggests solutions or ways to work towards feeling and functioning better.

As counterparts to the two problem dynamics we can posit two inner faculties:

  • Acceptance, or the ability to let go of struggle. Not just a form of resignation but an ability to open to the new.
  • Presence – by this I mean having a clear sense of self, an ability to separate self from immediate experience. It entails an ability to conceive how things could be different, and to work towards change.

I would say that these two are like two wings of mindfulness.

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