Sometimes we are faced with unpleasant or difficult situations. And we experience different emotions, like fear, anxiety, anger, irritation, resentment, shame, and guilt. But instead of, for example, looking for a job and solving financial problems, we spend the night watching TV shows or play our favorite games at Hellspin, wake up absolutely shattered, and try to cheer ourselves up by ordering a pizza for the last money. This is what escapism — the habit of escaping from unpleasant reality — can look like. Let’s find out what it is and whether it’s always harmful: maybe sometimes giving yourself a break so that you can get back on track with renewed energy isn’t such a losing strategy?

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What Escapism Is and Why It’s Needed

Escapism is the habit of “hiding” from the complexities of real life through pleasures, pleasant activities, and entertainment. A person tries to escape briefly into the world of fantasy and carefree rest from problems that they don’t want to solve at the moment or don’t know how to do it. We can hide in books, games, socializing with friends, work, sports, or hobbies.

What an Escapist Is

Escapism is neither good nor bad. It’s an adaptive strategy that helps us cope with difficult experiences. It’s based on the desire to avoid pain, to reduce the intensity of experience in the moment through simple physiological mechanisms. All forms of escapism are aimed at increasing the production of hormones such as oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine.

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For example, you had a hard day at work. And in the evening, you feel exhausted, so you decide to “reward” yourself and switch to something pleasant and relaxing. You order your favorite food and turn on a TV series; the psyche “exhales” and begins to recover. And the next day, of course, you go back to work.

 

Sometimes people “escape” from reality out of boredom: not when something difficult and unpleasant happens in life, but when nothing happens in it at first glance. Frustration and the feeling of meaninglessness in life are difficult as well. For example, a person lives alone and goes to a job that he has no interest in. He believes that he cannot qualify for a more serious position because he lacks skills. He cannot go to study and change the sphere of activity because there is no money and time. He is unlikely to build a relationship because the character is complex and the grief from the last breakup is still fresh… It’s as if he has built his routine and doesn’t think that he suffers directly, but in fact, he wants to escape from the paralyzing helplessness and chewing on thoughts about why he won’t succeed anyway. And he finds the “answer,” for example, in an online game; he pumps up his character, gets rare achievements, and becomes a famous person in the gaming community due to them. The problem isn’t the game: a person may not want to build a career and have relationships but make efforts to become a pro in his favorite hobby. Escape from reality becomes a problem when career and relationships are desirable but seem impossible, and success in the game is a compromise with oneself.

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We all resort to escapism sometimes, giving ourselves a break and pausing to deal with problems later with a fresh head and energy reserves. But sometimes the “vacation” away from the everyday worries is prolonged: we hide from problems instead of solving them, and in the meantime they become more and more serious. In some cases, escapism turns into addiction.

Where We Run to: Forms of Escapism

Escapism is a kind of antidote to anything that makes us difficult and uncomfortable. Don’t confuse it with procrastination, even if at first glance, the mechanisms may look similar. When we procrastinate, we simply put off unpleasant tasks. We may find ourselves in a marketplace looking at steamers in the middle of a workday when we don’t actually plan to buy a steamer at all. Studying the technical specifications of an unnecessary item is no fun, only delaying the moment when we need to get to work.

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With escapism, it’s different; we can still go to the marketplace in the middle of the working day and buy, for example, a dress, for which we regretted money before. This is done not to spend time choosing and buying (an escapist can do it instantly), but to get a flash of positive emotions from impulsive shopping.

 

Escapism is characterized by the desire to replace unpleasant emotions and thoughts with something pleasant. These are the forms escapism can take:

  • Any entertainment. Movies and TV series, concerts and plays, board and computer games, or books. Any activity that gives a person pleasure and joy.
  • Physical activity. Sports, yoga, dancing, and swimming.
  • Work or study. For example, a person can “escape” into a career from domestic problems or difficulties in relationships.
  • Impulsive shopping. Shopping can lift one’s mood, provide a brief burst of positive emotions, or act as a reward.
  • As with impulse buying, food can be a reward. Eating becomes a form of escapism when it isn’t related to hunger if the person eats for the desire to taste, distract, or cheer themselves up.
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When Escapism Is Dangerous

Some forms of escapism look downright destructive, while others look innocent and even beneficial. You should always look at how the strategy affects your life as a whole, whether it hinders or helps, energizes, or causes new problems.

 

But escapism can become dangerous if we start resorting to it too often. Uncontrolled escapism can cause a disconnection from reality: a person will give up communication with loved ones, ambitions, and their true needs. If you watch a movie and eat something delicious after a day of work, it’s great! Watching a TV series all night so that “the morning never comes when the alarm clock rings and you have to get ready for work” is dangerous.

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Any kind of escapism can take the form of addiction if a person acquires the habit of “escaping” into pleasure whenever something goes wrong. Psychologists believe that the consequences of such behavior can be a decrease in productivity and quality of life in general, as well as the loss of contact with their own feelings and emotions. Moreover, some problems still need to be solved. Imagine that you need to complete an unpleasant work task. At first, you try to placate yourself: “I’ll play for half an hour, and then I’ll start,” “I’ll have lunch, and then I’ll start.” Then you postpone the deadline: “Tonight I will have a good rest, and tomorrow, with a fresh head…”. The point is exactly in the mechanism: to do something you don’t want to do, you talk yourself into a deal — to take on the task, you must first encourage yourself. During this time, you have other things to do piling up, and eventually the psychological pressure grows along with your task list.

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According to the study, escapism can cause the development of destructive behavior. This is especially true for all its questionable forms, like alcohol or drug use.

How to Stop Running Away

If you notice that your strategy of escaping from reality brings more harm than good, you can work with this. The algorithm will look like this:

  • Recognize the problem and realize that you have a habit of “hiding” from difficulties and unpleasant emotions. And then figure out why and what exactly you want to “run away” from. For example, you have long been disappointed in your relationship with your partner and sometimes think that you no longer love him. But instead of discussing it with him, you organize a marathon of watching romantic comedies or work without weekends. Why do you do these things? What scares you about the dialog and possible breakup?
  • Think about how you can deal with the problem. For example, in relationships, a lot can be solved with a trusting conversation, and an unloved part of the job can be delegated. Refer to your life experience; perhaps you’ve dealt with these problems before? Do you need a sweetener in the form of something pleasant?
  • Think about what resources you will need: what exactly you need to do, how long it will take, and whether someone can help you.
  • Analyze all the options. Some of them will be the fastest, but they will require extra effort. Some of them will be slow but reliable, where all the “unpleasant” is distributed into small steps. And some of them will be the most effective.
  • Translate the plan into reality. This is the hardest point because thoughtfully strategizing and searching for the perfect solution can also be a form of escapism. You need to overcome this temptation and try to figure it all out at once. If you can’t, try to understand why this happened and how you can do it differently.
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If you cannot cope on your own, seek help from a psychologist. For example, one who works in a cognitive-behavioral or dialectical behavioral approach.

 

Be careful that the rational decision to take a temporary pause doesn’t become a one-size-fits-all answer to every difficulty. We want to get away from what scares us or worries us, seems exciting or frustrating, and that’s okay. Playing our favorite game, watching a cartoon, going for a run, and scrolling through kitty memes help us cope with life’s challenges, lift our spirits, and make each day a little more joyful and carefree. And that’s okay, as long as it doesn’t interfere with life. But some challenges need to be dealt with, and difficult emotions need to be lived through. And in the long run, being able to deal with those situations will bring less stress than trying to hide from them.

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