Nearly every person who is grieving has been told by well-meaning family and friends to keep busy in the aftermath of a loss. The same advice is given when someone is dealing with a trauma, heart ship or loss. Many people have nearly worked themselves into exhaustion trying to stay busy so they wouldn’t feel the pain that was the normal and natural by-product of the loss that affected them. We know the primary reason that the myth of keeping busy persists is because it is linked—almost like a satellite—to another major myth, that Grief Just Takes Time or Time Heals All Wounds. That myth fuels the idea that keeping busy is a good thing to do.
The basis for that dangerous combination of beliefs is the idea that if I keep busy today, then another day will have gone by, which allows the myth of Time Healing to make the pain go away. Of course that is totally incorrect, as the longer you wait to address the emotions connected to your loss; the more difficult it is to access those feelings. They get tucked away, buried out of sight, but still affecting you even if you’re not consciously aware of what’s going on under the surface. It’s bad enough that the idea of keeping busy is so inextricably tied to the false idea that the passage of time can heal anything, but it’s magnified by connection to one of the other myths – the first one, Don’t Feel Bad. Again, if we think we’re not supposed to feel bad—even though feeling bad or sad is the normal reaction to loss of any kind—then keeping busy is another way of trying to bypass the normal feelings of sadness and pain associated with loss.
Here’s another aspect to consider. Some people are busy types, others aren’t. Grief throws off all of our rhythms and patterns. If you give the advice to keep busy to someone who’s not naturally that kind of person, you will have taken them even further out of their own style. With as much change as is produced by the grief event itself, we recommend trying to keep from changing too many things.
Keeping busy can also be an avoidance coping behavior. Avoidance coping refers to choosing your behavior based on trying to avoid or escape particular thoughts or feelings.
It can involve "doing" (e.g., someone who excessively washes their hands to try to get rid of fears about contamination) or "not doing" (e.g., when someone avoids having an awkward conversation).
Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.
Examples of how avoidance coping leads to increased anxiety and intrusive thoughts.
Here are some examples related to anxiety disorders, but the principle applies to anxiety generally.
- People with panic disorder engage in avoidance coping (including not leaving their home in some cases) in order to try to avoid panicky feelings. The more they try to avoid situations that might trigger panicky feelings, the more almost every situation begins to trigger panicky feelings.
- People with eating disorders put tremendous effort into avoiding feeling fat, but the more they do so, the more their lives are consumed by weight and shape concern.
A non-clinical example is when people who fear abandonment act needy (e.g., ask their partner "Do you promise you won't leave me?") and their reassurance seeking (aimed at reducing their fears) creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because their partner gets sick of the reassurance seeking.
Even rumination can be considered a type of avoidance coping.
When people engage in rumination (overthinking) they are typically trying to think their way out of uncomfortable emotions. A common example is ruminating to try to escape feelings of uncertainty.
First steps to Overcoming Avoidance Coping
1. Recognize that it doesn't work.
What have you been trying to avoid? Feeling awkward? Feeling anxious? Thoughts and feelings of not being good enough? Do you still have those feelings or thoughts?
2. Recognize the costs of avoidance coping.
What has avoidance coping cost you?
How much time and mental energy has avoidance coping sucked up? How has it impacted your health? How has it affected relationships? How has it affected your sense of yourself as a competent person?
3. Learn to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
You need to learn how to tolerate experiencing thoughts and feelings you'd prefer not to experience until they naturally pass (thoughts and feelings are by their nature temporary). If you can do this you won't need to use avoidance coping.
Being prepared to experience anxiety will overall lead to less anxiety.
Things that can help with this includes:
- learning to soften rather than tense (link is external) in response to triggering thoughts and feelings or when you catch yourself doing a self-defeating behavior.
- learning physiological self-soothing skills (teaching yourself how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system by doing things like slow breathing, which in turn slows down your heart rate and makes it easier to think more clearly).
- learning to recognize that thoughts are often distorted so you can't actually trust any negative thoughts you have.
- building up your capacity to self-regulate e.g., if you're prone to overeating then setting a schedule for eating that meets your energy needs. Then, only eating at these times - not eating outside these times or skipping scheduled eating times.
- using "diffusion" skills (link is external) to reduce the psychological grip of intrusive thoughts. For many people diffusion skills are highly effective but at first glance they seem quite odd. For example, singing your intrusive thought to the tune of a familiar song.