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
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