Staying Busy to Avoid Feelings (Does it really help?)

Today’s blog post focuses on a common behaviour pattern,’staying busy to avoid feelings’. We start with understanding what makes feelings so difficult to be felt, after which we move to a deeper understanding of the biggest defense that is; keeping busy. In it, we look into the various signs that indicate the person keeps busy to avoid emotions. Finally, we try to understand ways in which the negative consequences of staying busy to avoid feelings can be averted.

Emotions are like a dark energy of the human mind, they are really powerful and yet are not completely known and understood by us. There come moments, where we often have to deal with a lot of overwhelming feelings, no matter how difficult and uncomfortable they seem to be. 

Staying busy to avoid feelings:

In certain situations, we are left with a little choice where we either have to face the feelings and deal with them or we could avoid them. And because they are emotions that we cannot really get rid of, we end up creating mechanisms to avoid them in a manner that ‘looks’ convincing and adaptive, which is usually in the form of staying busy. This is known as Staying busy to avoid feelings.

Why are feelings so difficult to feel?

One of the major reasons why emotions can be difficult to be felt is because we often come from cultures that resists or fears emotions. Right from the time we are infants and toddlers, we are asked to shut down any negative emotions that we might be experiencing. 

Because we are taught not to be expressive of the negative emotions or not to feel them deeply, we tend to develop mechanisms right from our childhood that we use as a defense everytime a difficult emotion comes up. 

These mechanisms tend to get solidified by the time we are about 5 years of age. These defenses that were created to protect us from stressful situations, actually prove to be adverse for us in adulthood. 

These defenses come up from a core conflict that humans face, which is either to face the feeling and everything else that comes with it, or to avoid the feeling to block out the pain, which comes from human relationships as well as existential issues.

These defenses can be seen in the form of a fight or flight response of the mind, where it is likely to be stressful to fight and therefore, it is easier to flee. And this fleeing response often comes in the form of staying to avoid feelings.

When we go through a stressful situation or a mental health issue, the issue is manifested through our thoughts, feelings and actions. The problem comes when we start judging the emotions that we feel and often cannot make sense out of them. This may also come from an understanding that only the positive emotions need to be felt and one needs to make sure how to enhance them. On the other hand, efforts need to be taken to avoid the negative emotions at all possible costs. 

Once the brain becomes conditioned and learns that a set of emotions is bad and should not be experienced, it will go to lengths to make sure that it is not being experienced and in this way emotions become an enemy to the person, making it difficult for us to feel them.

How is staying busy to avoid feelings manifested as a defense?

Staying busy to avoid feelings is manifested as a defense in the following way.

Some people genuinely prefer having an active and busy lifestyle, however, when the person becomes excessively preoccupied with the work and appointments and does not let himself be in the present moment, it is a very clear indication of him having a difficult time feeling his emotions. The busyness is often used as a distraction to avoid painful or negative feelings. 

How this works can be understood with the help of the filler versus fulfilment phenomena. 

There are situations in which a person may feel genuinely happy and satisfied by doing enormous amounts of work, having challenges and being busy as it gives them a chance to enhance their skills, work on their weaknesses and these are seen as the opportunities for self-exploration. Fulfilment with the amount of work done gives the person a sense of contentment. 

On the other hand, a filler does not serve any of these purposes. Any work that is done as a filler, or anything done just to keep oneself busy will not enhance the creativity, imagination and will not make the person feel satisfied about doing their job. But the filler can do what it does the best, help the person to avoid feeling the emotions. 

Apart from helping a person avoid feeling the emotions, these fillers also attack a person’s self esteem and self worth. The more the person tries to stay busy, the more he or she avoids the present and the emotions that come with it. The person tries to avoid the stress, anxiety and vulnerability that they are presently experiencing. 

Here are some signs that indicate that the person is staying busy to avoid feelings:

  • The to-do list and the appointment calendar is always full:

All seven days in the person’s calendar are filled with appointments and work schedules. They do not give themselves a break and try to fill their schedule up with tasks wherever possible, even if they might not be meaningful.How it helps is that, as the person works round the clock, he depletes himself the energy that the body has making him or her too exhausted to think at the end of the day. 

  • The need to be socially connected:

Being alone can be scary for a person as it can quickly give way to the emotions that are painful for the person, along with the thoughts and actions that accompany the emotions. This makes them have the need to be socially connected at all times. As suggested above that these defenses solidify by 5 years of age, this form of keeping oneself busy can also come up as a result of avoiding the loneliness that was a part of the person’s life since childhood. 

  • Not being able to slow down:

The person may develop a need to constantly be ‘on the go’ and may find it difficult to slow down or take a break. The person may also fail to notice the little things in the surroundings  are a result of having the need to be constantly occupied. 

Even though it is true that being busy helps the person distract oneself from the painful and negative emotions, it needs to be understood that it is a temporary relief and not a permanent solution. 

Because the emotions are being suppressed for a prolonged period of time, it would just be a matter of time, when these emotions would come flooding back with a greater intensity and force. At that moment, the person may not have any defenses to protect them. 

How to avoid the negative consequences of staying busy to avoid feelings?

It is not really possible for us to be selective when it comes to our emotions. We cannot selectively avoid negative emotions and feel only the positive emotions. Attempting this would simply lead to us feeling numb and our life would lack any meaning and direction. This would also mean that we would merely end up engaging in a goal-directed behaviour which will be avoiding painful emotions. 

  • Staying with the feeling and breathing:

The first step towards feeling an emotion is to avoid discomfort. When an uncomfortable feeling arises, the best way is to not ward it off, but instead one can sit and feel it and and try to relax while trying to accept whatever is being felt. It is absolutely normal to let oneself have the complete experience of feeling an emotion in the exact way that it is being precipitated. This should also be accompanied by not labelling the feeling. 

As the person spends more time with the feeling, he or she would become more comfortable with it and realise that the emotion may not be as scary as it looks. 

  • Not being judgemental about it:

A lot of times, we judge ourselves for feeling a particular emotion and often believe that a particular emotion ‘must’ or ‘should’ not be felt. There is a sense of criticism towards the self and the tendency to be harsh with oneself for feeling in a particular way. Being judgemental towards one’s emotions will only work to amplify it and make it more painful. This would give the emotion more power to harm the person. Being open and curious about the emotions are likely to give us more control over them than otherwise.

  • Calm the feeling but do not feed it:

Feeling the emotion should also be accompanied by a healthy balance. The other extreme of not allowing oneself to feel an emotion would be feeling it to an extent that it leads to a trail of thoughts and maladaptive behaviours. It is important to feel that emotion as it builds in the wave and calming down as the wave subsides. Over identifying the emotion would just lead to us feeding the emotion which will then amplify and the accompanying thoughts will be justified, which can lead to a cognitive distortion.

Feeling the emotions actually make us stronger and more resilient and although emotions can be threatening, we can definitely deal with them in a positive and an adaptive manner. Emotions are not as scary as they are perceived and regulating and managing the emotions is a skill that needs to be learnt. 

Feeling the emotions gives a better clarity to our thoughts and behaviours and it helps us to avoid feeling victimised and lashing out on the self as well as others. Ultimately, it is important to remember that emotions come and go and that all feelings are acceptable. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Staying busy to avoid feelings

Can you be addicted to being busy to avoid emotions and other things?

Becoming anxious to the thought of slowing down and not getting things done can make someone addicted to being busy. It can also be a way of avoiding difficult issues, a breakdown or emotions. 

Are emotions natural or learned?

Based on years of research, it was suggested that, Emotions are innate, biologically driven reactions to certain challenges and opportunities, sculpted by evolution to help humans survive.

Is being emotionless possible?

Although the person may become numb and avoid emotions for a while after it, it is not possible for any healthy person to not feel emotions. 

Is it bad to always be busy?

Being busy can be good as It means you’re being productive and getting things done. It can also be bad and signify that you’re taking on too many activities and not giving yourself enough breathing room to relax and rest. It can also be bad, if it is used as a defense mechanism to avoid emotions.

Why do we glorify being busy?

Being busy is often given a batch of honor or way to establish status and worth. It is usually glorified in societies so that the person does not feel as though he is being left behind. 


Today’s blog post focused on a common behaviour pattern,’staying busy to avoid feelings’. We started with understanding what makes feelings so difficult to be felt, after which we moved to a deeper understanding of the biggest defense that is; keeping busy. In it, we looked into the various signs that indicate the person keeps busy to avoid emotions. Finally, we tried to understand ways in which the negative consequences of staying busy to avoid feelings can be averted.


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