Os­trich syn­drome can come with huge risks, some life-threat­en­ing.

Bury­ing your head in the sand is easy, but fac­ing your prob­lems headon will make you hap­pier in the long run, Christine Field­house dis­cov­ers

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

Avoid­ance it­self isn’t a con­di­tion, but it could be a symp­tom of a health dis­or­der, such as anx­i­ety

In a drawer in her bed­room An­jula* has a pile of un­opened let­ters that have been ar­riv­ing at her Dubai post­box over the past three years. She sus­pects they’re about her stu­dent loan back home in the UK, but she doesn’t know for sure. Since her work as a free­lance designer took a down­turn al­most four years ago, she’s ig­nored all ef­forts from banks to get in touch. She doesn’t an­swer their calls, their num­bers are blocked on her home phone, and she lets calls to her mo­bile go straight to voice­mail, which she then deletes as if they were nui­sance calls.

She is living off a lo­cal credit card with the low­est pos­si­ble pay­ment com­ing off her ac­count each month – not that she checks. But An­jula’s main fear is that she’ll even­tu­ally lose the flat she loves. Living alone, she has no one to help shoul­der the fi­nan­cial bur­den. So she just puts bank state­ments into the drawer un­opened. “When any­one asks me how work is go­ing, I smile and say, ‘Fine thanks, how are you get­ting on?’,” con­fides An­jula. “And most of the time I be­lieve it’s go­ing well for me. But real­is­ti­cally, I’m do­ing a frac­tion of the free­lance work that I used to do, and what work I get is pay­ing less. I’ve no idea what’s in my ac­counts, but I with­draw money as if I’m still earn­ing a de­cent salary and use my credit card a lot.

“I don’t want to know the fig­ures in­volved. I feel sick at the thought of know­ing. In my head, if I can’t see the state­ments they don’t ex­ist. I don’t go over­board with my spend­ing, I’ve cut back a lot. That’s how I jus­tify things, so what use would open­ing the let­ters be?

“Ev­ery time I use my credit card or with­draw money I get a sick feel­ing in my stom­ach that this might be the day the money has run out. But so far it hasn’t. It’s eas­ier this way. Sit­ting down and look­ing at fig­ures makes me feel pan­icky and scared. I’ve thought about get­ting an­other job but I love the free­dom of free­lanc­ing.”

By avoid­ing con­tact with her bank, An­jula is show­ing signs of the Os­trich Syn­drome, a psy­cho­log­i­cal term to de­scribe be­hav­iour where we prover­bially stick our heads in the sand to ig­nore our prob­lems. And she isn’t alone. Even if we haven’t used avoid­ance strate­gies our­selves, we all know peo­ple who’ve ig­nored a lump on their body in the hope it would go away; let re­la­tion­ships fiz­zle out in­stead of break­ing up; or ig­nored the phone be­cause they know it’s some­one they’d rather not talk to. Some­times avoid­ance seems the eas­ier, more com­fort­able way out, but ex­perts say we pay the price in the long term.

“Os­trich Syn­drome re­lates to a style of cop­ing called ‘avoid­ance cop­ing’, and we use it to man­age un­com­fort­able feel­ings we may ex­pe­ri­ence in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions,” ex­plains Carey Kirk, a coun­selling psy­chol­o­gist at The Light­House Ara­bia in Dubai.

“While avoid­ance it­self isn’t a con­di­tion, in ex­treme cases, it can be a symp­tom of a men­tal health dis­or­der, such as anx­i­ety.

“Peo­ple use avoid­ance cop­ing in any num­ber of ar­eas, such as bills, con­fronta­tions, public speak­ing and mak­ing de­ci­sions. What we avoid is de­pen­dent on what makes us feel un­com­fort­able. It’s pos­si­ble that a per­son who avoids look­ing at her bills may well be as­sertive in a con­flict sit­u­a­tion, or some­one who avoids public speak­ing might well speak her mind in her per­sonal re­la­tion­ships.”

Ac­cord­ing to Carey, we can be ostriches at any age and the syn­drome can be seen in a child who re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge they have to move house, the teenager who avoids his girl­friend so he doesn’t have to break up with her, the col­lege stu­dent who doesn’t take part in ac­tiv­i­ties be­cause she doesn’t want to risk fail­ing, and the 45-yearold par­ents who don’t dis­cuss the fact their child is leav­ing home for uni­ver­sity.

“Avoid­ance is a form of nonac­cep­tance of life,” con­tin­ues Carey. “It’s a way of try­ing to fight re­al­ity and this takes a lot of en­ergy. One of the risks of be­ing an os­trich is be­ing

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