Ignoring problems

Ignoring Problems | Actionable Strategies & Coping Mechanisms

Ignoring problems can be an easy solution for an overflowing inbox, growing to-do lists, and an overwhelming lifestyle. Sometimes we might feel like ignoring overwhelming emotions is the only way to keep our sanity.

If you are tired of constantly playing catch-up, then this blog is for you.

Table Of Content:

Key Insights and Action Tips:

  • We avoid problems because they’re scary: Fear of failure, worst-case scenarios – you get the picture. But the longer we avoid them, the bigger and scarier they become!
  • Ignoring problems messes with your mind and body: Chronic stress, anxiety, and decision paralysis – not exactly a recipe for a happy life.
  • There’s a good kind of avoidance (believe it or not!): Taking breaks to recharge and tackling smaller tasks first can help you conquer those big problems.

So, how do we stop avoiding and start conquering?

  • Challenge your fears: What’s the worst that could happen? 
  • Be kind to yourself: We all make mistakes. Celebrate your progress, no matter how small.
  • Reward yourself! Finished a tough task? Treat yourself to something awesome (think: guilt-free dopamine boost!)

Psychology of avoidance – Why do we ignore our problems?

I used to be great at avoiding my problems. I did it for different reasons but it seemed to work until it didn’t. See, avoidance is a natural human response that can be extremely effective in the short run but will backfire in the long run.

We avoid our problems majorly because of our fears, procrastination, and negative emotions associated with our problems

  • Fear: We often avoid our problems because of the fear of the outcome – the worst-case scenarios.
    • Perfectionism: Fear of failure can emerge as perfectionism. Setting such high standards will lead to procrastination and avoidance.
  • Negative emotions:
    • Any complex task or problem can cause a wave of negative emotions. In such cases, we rely on avoidance to get some temporary relief.
    • Emotional Drain: Problems can drain us mentally and emotionally.
    • Dreaded Dread: The longer we avoid something, the more dreadful and scary it might seem to us. The fears and other negative emotions keep piling up which makes it harder for us to face it.
    • Shame: In some cases, avoidance can lead to a cycle of shame. Feeling bad about putting things off can fuel avoidance, leading to more shame.

“Procrastination is more than just a time management problem – it’s an emotional regulation problem. People procrastinate to avoid the negative emotions associated with starting or completing a task”

The Feeling of Control & Fear of the Unknown: 

“Avoidance can be a powerful defense mechanism, but ultimately it keeps us stuck. It’s about facing the things we fear, not because they are guaranteed good, but because we refuse to be ruled by them.” 

Avoidance can give an illusion of control. How? Well, by putting off our problems we create an illusion that we are choosing when to deal with it.

A study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who scored higher in “fear of failure” were more likely to avoid challenging tasks.

The Comfort of the Familiar: 

We often avoid problems because familiar discomfort feels safer than the potential chaos of tackling something new.

“We choose the path less traveled, and that has made all the difference.”

Research in Neuroscience states that our brain seeks familiar patterns and routines. The Amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear and emotions becomes less active when we engage in familiar activities. 

This is why we feel comfortable avoiding a new problem that could cause so much discomfort.

Personality Types and Avoidance:

  • Neuroticism: More likely to avoid problems – People who are high in neuroticism
  • Extraversion: Might avoid problems that involve conflict and confrontation in an attempt to make positive social connections.
  • Openness to Experience:  Less likely to avoid problems – might struggle to focus on the steps to progress and might get lost in the “big picture”.
  • Perfectionists: More likely to avoid problems as perfectionists has a fear of anything less than a flawless outcome.
  • Narcissists: Might avoid problems that could expose their imperfections, insecurities, and vulnerabilities

Remember, everyone has a mix of personality traits and these are just tendencies of people with certain types of personalities but will vary on an individual basis.

Reflect on questions like this to get a better idea of your avoidant style so you can come up with targetted strategies to overcome ignoring problems and avoidance:

  • What types of situations do I typically avoid?
  • What emotions do I associate with problem-solving?
  • What are my biggest fears related to facing challenges?

Impact on quality of life:

It’s no surprise that ignoring problems in our lives can destroy our careers, relationships, and ultimately our mental well-being.

Here’s a short insight into how ignoring problems can ultimately destroy our mental well-being in the long run:

  • Chronic Stress: Problems increase cortisol levels in our body and elevated cortisol levels for extended periods could potentially cause anxiety and depression. [Source: Psychoneuroendocrinology, Study on Cortisol and Mental Health]
  • Anxiety loop: The Amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for negative emotions like fear, stays on high alert when we ignore our problems for a long time. Such unresolved negative emotions can become stuck in neural circuits and make it harder for us to regulate and manage anxiety in our lives. [Source: Nature Neuroscience, Study on Unresolved Negative Emotions and Anxiety]
  • Decision Paralysis: Our prefrontal cortex, our brain’s decision-making, and control system is overloaded when we have too many ignored problems. Chronic stress caused by our problems can impair the functionality of our pre-frontal cortex keeping us stuck in the cycle of procrastination and avoidance. [Source: Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Study on Chronic Stress and Prefrontal Cortex Function]
  • Mental breakdown: Chronic stress can lead to high allostatic load, which is the wear and tear caused by stress on our body. Such high allostatic load over some time can cause severe anxiety, depression, and even physical health problems and issues [Source: Psychological Science, Study on Allostatic Load and Mental Health]

When is it good to avoid problems – Healthy Avoidance Vs Unhealthy Denial:

The issues we discussed in the previous section arise out of unhealthy denial. 

Avoidance isn’t always the enemy. 

Saying “no” is a skill we need to develop to avoid getting overwhelmed and prioritizing tasks that aren’t urgent or important. Although there’s a very thin line between healthy avoidance and unhealthy denial.

What is Healthy Avoidance and Why is it Important?

Healthy avoidance or ignorance is a conscious choice we make to temporarily step away from a problem or situation with the intention of returning to it later.

Healthy ignorance case 1: Pauses help with Creativity:

Short-term pauses can give your mind the rest and freedom it requires to solve complex problems. They could potentially provide new perspectives, ideas, and solutions to tackle your issues more creatively and effectively. Makes sense right?

“Originality thrives in procrastination. It seems that the pressure to conform and meet deadlines can stifle creativity. When people have time to space away from a problem, unconscious processing can lead to fresh perspectives and innovative solutions”

Adam Grant

Healthy ignorance case 2: Prevents Burnout:

Chronic stress could lead to so many issues including burnout. Taking breaks and ignoring problems temporarily could help protect your mental well-being. It’s a form of self-care.

“Saying no to things that drain your energy is not selfish, it’s self-care”

Melodie Wilding

Healthy Ignorance Case 3: Understanding our Emotional Bandwidth:

Our brain is a biological machine that has limitations and it’s important for us to be more aware of our emotional bandwidth. 

  • What activities drain your emotional energy the most?
  • What activities recharge your mental batteries? What are your relaxing hobbies?

Understanding your limits and bandwidth will help you be more emotionally intelligent in terms of prioritizing problems!

Healthy Ignorance Case 4: Managing Energy and Motivation:

It’s important to manage energy and motivation as certain tasks require specific conditions to be optimal. 

  • Understand your natural rhythms and see which problems can be tackled with the given environment and energy. 

Healthy Ignorance Case 5: Intentionality and Awareness

Be mindful of the motivations behind your actions and decisions. Even if you avoid a problem, be aware of your intentions and plan to deal with the problem on a specific day and time.

“We all have problems we’d rather avoid. But by strategically ‘avoiding for now’ and focusing on what truly matters in the present moment, we can build the emotional resilience and mental clarity needed to navigate life’s inevitable challenges.”

Dr. Robert Firestone

Healthy avoidance is about choosing your battles wisely.

Healthy Avoidance:Unhealthy Denial:
Intention: Conscious choice to ignore a problem or situation temporarily to return to it later.Intention: Subconscious attempt to avoid and ignore a problem hoping it would disappear.
Emotional response: You feel relieved, calm, and in control.Emotional response: Fueled by anxiety, fear, and shame.
Impact: Addresses the problem eventually with new perspectiveImpact: Chronic stress, problem addition, and the potential to affect our mental well-being and quality of life

Actionable strategies to deal with – The urge to avoid problems

Small Problems First – Upward Spiral of Problem Solving:

Break big problems into smaller ones first and tackle those smaller tasks to get more motivation to focus more. 

  • More motivation: The sense of accomplishment we get from completing smaller tasks will keep us motivated. The progress theory suggests that such progress will provide more motivation for us to push harder for the bigger task/goal.
  • Reduce mental tension: Unfinished tasks create mental tension that drains our focus and keeps us overwhelmed. 
  • Streak Mentality: In the popular book, the Atomic Habits, James clearly recommends developing a streak mentality to complete smaller tasks consistently to eventually tackle the big problem in our life.
  • Use Deadlines: Some people strive better under pressure and they should use deadlines to push themselves to finish tasks more effectively within the given time frame.

Fear and procrastination – Challenge your fears

Fear of failure and perfectionism can be a silent factor behind your fears.

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow”

Here are some expert advice to tackle fears:

  • 5-second rule: Mel Robbins recommends counting 5 to 1 to act on a problem that you are afraid to take on. This break can you you break out of your fears.
  • Focus heavily on the positives: We often think deeply and lose ourselves in the worst-case scenarios or the extreme discomfort of tackling a problem we have been avoiding. Instead, focus heavily on all the potential positive outcomes of tackling the problem. Just brutally focus on the positives.
  • Visualize your fears:  Tim Ferris recommends identifying and visualizing your fears as a way to be more aware of them and create a plan to address them. 

Journaling prompts to identify fears:

  • Imagine the absolute worst-case scenario if you were to address this problem. What are your biggest fears? How realistic are they?
  • What critical voices arise within you when you contemplate tackling this problem? What are they trying to protect you from?
  • Imagine yourself a year from now. How would you feel if you had addressed this problem today? How would it have impacted your life?
  • Identify one small, actionable step you can take to begin addressing this problem today. What fear(s) might this initial step trigger? How can you overcome them?

Master your Coping Mechanisms: 

“The single most important factor in overcoming procrastination is identifying what specific actions or situations trigger your avoidance. Once you know your triggers, you can develop coping mechanisms to deal with them”

Gretchen Rubin – The power of habit

Take Healthy Breaks Often and Challenge yourself:

I love to take breaks often during a work session. You need to understand your focus span better and take healthy breaks that don’t distract you.

Questions to ask yourself: Journaling prompts:

  • Track your breaks: For a week, note down everything you do during your breaks. How does each activity make you feel afterward? Were you refreshed and ready to return to work, or did it leave you feeling sluggish or needing more time to re-focus?
  • What worked, what didn’t?: Think about past breaks that left you feeling energized and ready to tackle tasks. What did you do during those breaks? Conversely, were there breaks that left you feeling drained or unfocused? Why do you think that was?
  • What energizes you?: Outside of work, what activities do you find refreshing and enjoyable? These could be hobbies, spending time in nature, physical activity, or social interaction. Can you incorporate elements of these activities into your breaks?
  • Mind-body connection: Consider activities that engage both your mind and body. Could you do some light stretches, short bursts of aerobic exercise (jumping jacks, jumping rope), or simple yoga poses?

Self-Compassion and Acceptance:

I cannot express the importance of self-compassion in maintaining a healthy mindset. It increases resilience, reduces stress, increases motivation, and a positive outlook in life. 

“Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others”

Dr.Kristin Neff

  • Blame to Understanding: While it’s important to push yourself to tackle your problems, it’s also key to understand and accept yourself for your past mistakes and failures. 
  • Self Appreciating: Appreciate yourself for your progress, no matter how small.
  • Forgive and strategize during your setbacks: Go easy on yourself during setbacks and strategize to tackle the problem again. There are immense opportunities in failures.

“This is a journey, not a destination. It’s okay to have setbacks as long as I keep moving forward”

Tips: Keep a progress journal and write about your progress no matter how small it is.

Self-compassionate Action: 

Self-compassion doesn’t mean you are off the hook. It should always lead to more compassionate action. Gently acknowledge the struggle and instead of beating yourself up and drowning in anxiety and stress, compassion helps you move past it with understanding, awareness, and new strategies.

Mindfulness and Meditation:

When we practice mindfulness and meditation, we are more aware of our thoughts and emotions, including our avoidance tendencies and procrastination.

“Meditation allows us to observe our thoughts and feelings without giving too much power to them”

  • Challenge negative self-talk: You’ll be more aware of your negative self-talk and emotions that reinforce your avoidance tendencies.
  • Helps improve focus and concentration: These are critical to tackle any problem in life.

What to do? Practice meditation as a part of your daily routine.

Bonus Point: Reward yourself:

Tangible actual rewards! Studies by Stanford University show that actual tangible rewards are way more effective than verbal praise in motivating you to overcome a challenging problem.

If possible break down your victories and rewards based on the amount of focus and effort required to accomplish it.

“Pairing a desired behavior (like conquering avoidance) with a reward sets off a neurochemical loop in our brains that makes us want to repeat the behavior.”

BJ Fogg

Mini-rewards – Mini Victories:

Journaling prompts to identify mini rewards:

  • What are some small daily activities that bring me joy? 
    • (Think: reading a chapter of a book, taking a relaxing bath, spending time with a pet)
  • When I’m feeling overwhelmed, what simple pick-me-up activities help me refocus and recharge? 
    • (Consider: listening to music, taking a walk in nature, or doing some stretches)

Milestone rewards:

Milestones could be completing your weekly goals or tackling a problem you have been putting off for a while

Question to ask yourself: What are some tangible rewards (e.g., new clothes, a gadget) that motivate me to push through a period of focused effort? (Be honest with yourself about what excites you!)

Epic rewards:

Epic rewards can come after achieving long-term personal or professional goals!

Identify and list your epic rewards: Imagine I just conquered a major life goal. How would I celebrate this epic win in a way that feels truly special and unforgettable? 

  • (Think bucket list experiences, extravagant splurges, or symbolic gestures)

“The key to motivation is to celebrate small wins. Don’t wait for the big finish line; celebrate every single milestone along the way.”

  • Mel Robbins

AUTHOR SECTION

Sai Subramaniam The digital Hope

Written by Sai Subramaniam

Sai has over 5 years of experience writing about mental health and productivity. He shares his thoughts about love, life, and business in this blog. His goal is to help people become the best version of themselves and is guided by experts in the psychology and mental health field to help educate everyone about lifestyle and productivity

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *