Avoidance Coping and Why It Creates Additional Stress

Avoid this Common and Damaging Coping Strategy

Avoidance coping can create more stress.
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Procrastination, passive-aggressiveness, and rumination: What do they have in common? If you answered, "They're all things that are often done by me (or someone I'm close to)," you should definitely read more. If you suspect that these are all things we do consciously or unconsciously when we are trying to avoid tackling something head-on or trying to avoid thoughts or feelings that make you uncomfortable, you're on the right track.

These, and some other common behaviors we'll explore below, are all forms of avoidance coping.

What Is Avoidance Coping?

Avoidance coping, also known as avoidant coping, avoidance behaviors, and escape coping, is a maladaptive form of coping that involves changing our behavior to try to avoid thinking or feeling things that are uncomfortable. In other words, avoidance coping involves trying to avoid stressors rather than dealing with them. It may seem that avoiding stress is a great way to feel less stressed, but this isn't necessarily the case; often, we need to deal with things so we either experience less stress or feel less stressed by what we experience without avoiding the problem entirely. (That's why we strive for "stress management" rather than "stress avoidance"—we can't always avoid stress, but we can manage it with effective coping techniques.)

The other broad category of coping is "active coping" or "approach coping," which is coping that addresses a problem directly as a way to alleviate stress.

This means talking through problems to alleviate relationship stress, reframing a situation to recognize the positives of a situation, or budgeting more carefully to minimize financial stress, for example. There are two main types of active coping. Active-cognitive coping involves changing how you think about the stressor, while active-behavioral coping addresses the problem directly.

Either way, with active coping, you are addressing the stress, rather than attempting to avoid it.

Avoidance coping is considered maladaptive, or unhealthy, because it often exacerbates stress without helping us deal with the things that are stressing us. Procrastination, for example, is an avoidance coping mechanism: we feel stressed when we think about what we have to do, so we avoid doing it and try to avoid thinking about it. The problem, obviously, is that we usually don't stop thinking about what needs to be done—we just stress about it until we get it done. And we don't stress less than we would if we just tackled the task; we often stress as we think about what needs to be done, then stress as we try to rush to get it done, and sometimes stress because we couldn't get it done well enough with the time we left ourselves. (It is true that sometimes people work best with a deadline looming, but this isn't the least stressful way to tackle most jobs.)

When Do People Use Avoidance Coping?

There are many different times people find themselves using avoidance coping instead of facing stress head-on. Anxious people may be particularly susceptible to avoidance coping because it initially appears to be a way to avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts and situations.

(Unfortunately, this type of response to stress tends to exacerbate anxiety.) Those who are naturally prone to anxiety, therefore, may have learned avoidance techniques early on and perhaps have a more difficult time learning more proactive strategies afterward. Additionally, if you learned this type of behavior growing up, it may be habit now. That doesn't mean it needs to remain your main mode for handling stress, however.

Why It Magnifies Your Stress

There are many ways in which avoidance behaviors magnify stress. First, they don't actually solve the problem that causes the stress, so they are less effective than more proactive strategies that may minimize stress in the future.

Avoidance may also allow problems to grow. Avoidance may also be frustrating to others, so habitually using avoidance strategies may create conflict in relationships and minimize social support. Finally, avoidance approaches can create more anxiety much of the time.

The Link Between Avoidance Coping and Anxiety

If you've ever heard the phrase, "What you resist, persists," you have been introduced to the basic reason that avoidance coping can increase anxiety. When people use this strategy to consciously or unconsciously avoid something that causes them anxiety, they usually create a situation where they need to face it more.

For example, if you are like many people, conflict may bring anxiety. If you try to avoid conflict (and the anxiety it brings) by avoiding conversations that may contain elements of conflict, it may feel like you are steering clear of conflict and your anxiety levels may remain lower in the moment. However, in the long term, most relationships—whether with friends, loved ones, or even acquaintances—encounter some disagreements, misunderstandings, or other conflict-laden elements that may need to be sorted out at times.

If you avoid having the conversations that are needed to resolve a conflict in the early stages, the conflict can snowball and bring greater levels of stress to the relationship, ultimately even ending it. This can create anxiety over any conflicts, as your experience may tell you that even a small conflict can be a relationship-ender (which may be true if you do not resolve the conflict). Taken further, if you find yourself ending relationships rather than working through conflicts, you may find yourself with many broken relationships and a sense that you're not able to make relationships 'work' long-term, which can cause more anxiety as well. 

This can even be true with our thoughts. When we try to avoid getting hurt by trying to think our way out of bad situations, we become so engaged in trying to think of a solution rather than acting on one. While trying to determine all possible scenarios and things that can go wrong—or of all the ways things have gone wrong so we can avoid them in the future—we can fall into the trap of rumination. This, of course, creates more stress and anxiety.

When Avoidance Coping Is Actually Healthy

There are some forms of passive coping that are not maladaptive and are actually healthy. These healthier forms of coping do not necessarily approach the problem directly but affect our response to the problem. That is, it is healthy to practice techniques that can help us to feel calmer as we face a difficult situation, even if these techniques don't affect the situation directly. (This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's important to make this point.)

This means that stress relief strategies like relaxation techniques and jogging, which can minimize the stress response we may experience when we face a problem and even increase our self-confidence, can be effective techniques to use because they empower us to face our stressors more effectively.

It is important to be aware, however, that not everything that minimizes our stress in the moment is a healthy form of avoidance coping. For example, binge eating, shopping, or even a glass of wine can help us to feel better in the moment but obviously bring other consequences when we overdo it, so it's best not to rely on these "strategies" for stress relief as they can get out of control and create more stress. It's more effective to create healthy habits that build our resilience.

How to Avoid Avoidance Coping

It's far healthier to avoid this type of coping by using active coping strategies. If you've tended toward avoidance coping most of your life, however, or at least are in the habit of using it, it's hard to know how to stop. Here are some effective ways to get out of the avoidance coping habit:

  • Understand what it is and why it doesn't work: Yes, you've already taken an important first step toward cutting down on avoidance coping by reading this article and getting this far. Now that you have a greater understanding of why avoidance coping is self-defeating in most instances, you'll be more able to talk yourself out of it and into more proactive and effective ways of managing stress when you face it.
  • Recognize when you're doing it: Take a minute to think of common times you tend to use avoidance coping. Do you procrastinate? Do you avoid discussing problems or facing issues? Make a note of these times, and make it a point to notice when you avoid things in the future. This is a vital step in stopping yourself and replacing your habits with more effective ones.
  • Use stress relief techniques: Remember, one of the only passive coping strategies found to be helpful is the practice of stress relief techniques. If you learn to calm your body's stress response when you face stress and conflict, you'll be less reactive and more empowered to be proactive. It can also enhance your confidence and belief in your ability to handle the stressors you face. This all makes it easier to let go of your avoidance habits.
  • Practice emotional coping techniques: Journaling has been found to be highly effective for managing emotional stress. So has meditation. In addition to finding techniques that calm your physiology, finding strategies to soothe your emotions can help you to feel less threatened (and in need of escape) when stressed and more able to face stress head-on.
  • Learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings (meditation helps!) Once you become more used to being uncomfortable, you'll be more comfortable with the feelings you usually run from. This can help immeasurably because you'll have more of a choice in how you face problems; you won't have a knee-jerk avoidance response, and facing problems head-on won't bring as much anxiety once you're more used to it. One way to become more comfortable with the uncomfortable is to practice meditation. In fact, one technique they teach in mindfulness-based stress reduction classes is to sit and meditate the next time you feel an itch instead of scratching it immediately. See what thoughts and feelings arise, and see how long it takes for the feeling to pass. Observe your feelings, breathe through it, and become more acquainted with the idea of sitting with discomfort. This can help you to realize that nothing horrible comes from being uncomfortable in most cases. You can handle it. And then you can move on.
  • Identify active coping options: The next time you face a stressor, look at your options. Is there a way you can reframe your thoughts to identify resources you didn't realize you had, recognize hidden benefits in a situation that you didn't initially see, or approach it from a mental standpoint that doesn't involve avoidance? Are there strategies you can actively take that involve doing something differently to positively affect your situation? Think about what you can do to improve your situation, and then do it.
  • Practice communication skills: If you tend to run from conflict, it may be because you don't know how to resolve a conflict in a proactive or peaceful way. (Many people weren't taught assertiveness skills growing up, but it's never too late to learn!) Become comfortable discussing issues and coming up with "win-win" solutions whenever possible, and you'll find yourself less tempted to avoid conflict and more empowered to resolve it in a way that strengthens your relationships.
  • Take small steps: Sometimes the idea of tackling a stressful situation feels insurmountable, but taking the first step in that direction might feel far more doable. See if you can change your behavior by trying out a small step in the direction of being active in your coping. Then take a larger step next time. Soon, you'll be more comfortable on a more active path.
  • Have someone hold you accountable: It's much harder to run from your problems when you have someone you have to explain this to. Use this reality to your advantage and enlist a buddy in your efforts to stamp out avoidance coping. Have someone ask you if you've started that project yet, or talked to the person you're angry with, or stopped obsessing and taken action. Sometimes you just need a nudge in the right direction from someone outside yourself. Sometimes you just need some extra support.
  • Find help: Speaking of extra support, you can always speak to a therapist about avoidance tendencies, particularly if it's affecting your life in negative ways or you feel unable to tackle the problem on your own to the extent that you'd like. With a little support, you can become more active in your coping strategies and less stressed with relative ease.

Sources:

Long, B; Haney, C (1988). "Long-term follow-up of stressed working women: a comparison of aerobic exercise and progressive relaxation.". Journal of sport and exercise psychology. 10 (4).

Zeidner M, Endler NS, ed. (1995). Handbook of coping: theory, research, applications. Wiley. p. 514.

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