Avoidance - PTSD: National Center for PTSD
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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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Avoidance

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Avoidance

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Avoidance is a common reaction to trauma. It is natural to want to avoid thinking about or feeling emotions related to a traumatic event. But when avoidance is extreme, or when it’s the main way you cope, it can interfere with your emotional recovery and quality of life.

“I think that avoidance was my life, even though I didn't realize it.”

Jeff Goodrich


U.S. Army National Guard
1984-2006

What Are the Different Types of Avoidance?

Emotional avoidance is when a person avoids thoughts or feelings about a traumatic event. For example:

  • Someone who experienced a sexual assault may try to create distance from unpleasant emotions, like fear, when reminded of the trauma. A combat Veteran may try to shut down feelings of sadness about a deployment or war zone.
  • Someone who survived a serious accident may say things like, "Don't go there," or "Don't think about it.”

Avoiding reminders—like places, people, sounds or smells—of a trauma is called behavioral avoidance. For example:

  • A combat Veteran may stop watching the news or using social media because of stories or posts about war or current military events.
  • Someone who lived in New York City might have moved out of the area after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • Assault survivors might go out of their way to stay away from the scene of their attack or places that remind them of the assault.

What Are the Consequences of Avoidance?

Growing up, you may have heard advice like, “just try not to think about it” or “don’t dwell on it.” But if you go out of your way to avoid thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic event, your symptoms may get worse. Using avoidance as your main way of coping with traumatic memories can make it harder to move on with your life.

Is All Avoidance Bad?

Not all avoidance is bad. It can be helpful to learn ways to focus your thoughts and feelings on things that are not related to the trauma. For example:

  • Focusing on things you can accomplish or control can be a useful strategy.
  • Grounding yourself in the present—rather than past events—can allow you to focus on school or work, or complete chores and errands, even in the face of reminders of a trauma.
  • Rather than avoiding relationships, find ways to connect with people in your support circle.

How Can You Learn to Cope with Difficult Thoughts and Feelings?

You may be afraid that if you let yourself feel difficult emotions, they might overwhelm you. You may be afraid that if you start crying, you’ll cry forever. Or you may worry that if you experience the anger inside you, you might lose control. Therapy can help you learn to cope with your thoughts and feelings about the trauma instead of being afraid of them.

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PTSD Information Voice Mail:
(802) 296-6300
ncptsd@va.gov
Also see: VA Mental Health

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