Avoidance Coping and Why It Creates Additional Stress

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Procrastination, passive-aggressiveness, and rumination are examples of unhelpful coping mechanisms that we may consciously or unconsciously use to avoid tackling a tough issue or facing thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable.

These behaviors are forms of avoidance coping. Here's more about what that means as well as how you can learn to cope more effectively.

What Is Avoidance Coping?

Avoidance coping—also known as avoidant coping, avoidance behaviors, and escape coping—is a maladaptive form of coping in which a person changes their behavior to avoid thinking about, feeling, or doing difficult things.

Avoidance coping involves trying to avoid stressors rather than dealing with them.

Avoiding stress might seem like a great way to become less stressed, but this isn't necessarily the case. More often than not, confronting a problem or dealing with a stressor is the only way to effectively reduce the stress it causes.

We strive for "stress management" rather than "stress avoidance" because we can't always avoid stress, but we can manage it with effective coping techniques.

Other Types of Coping

The other broad category of coping is called "active coping" or "approach coping." This type of coping addresses a problem directly as a means to alleviate stress.

For example, talking through problems that are causing stress in your relationship, reframing a situation to recognize the positives rather than only focusing on the negatives, or budgeting more carefully to minimize financial stress all demonstrate active coping.

Active Coping

There are two main types of active coping:

  • Active-behavioral coping addresses the problem directly.
  • Active-cognitive coping involves changing how you think about the stressor.

When Do People Use Avoidance Coping?

People find themselves using avoidance coping instead of facing stress head-on for many reasons. Anxious people can be susceptible to avoidance coping because initially, it appears to be a way to avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts and situations.

But in the long run, an avoidance coping response to stress tends to exacerbate anxiety rather than alleviate it.

People who are prone to anxiety might have learned avoidance techniques early on and therefore might find it more difficult to learn proactive strategies. If you learned to adopt these behaviors when you were growing up, they can become a habit by the time you are an adult. However, that does not mean that it needs to remain your main mode for handling stress.

Why Avoidance Coping Is Unhealthy

Avoidance coping is considered to be maladaptive (or unhealthy) because it often exacerbates stress without helping a person deal with the things that are causing them stress.

Procrastination is one example. If something that we have to do stressing us out, we might avoid doing it or even try to stop thinking about it. However, we typically don't stop thinking about whatever it is that needs to be done. Rather, we continue to feel stressed about it until it gets done.

Ultimately, we don't feel less stressed than we would have if we just tackled the task right away rather than putting it off. Instead, we stress about what needs to be done and become even more stressed as we inevitably rush to get it done.

The stress only piles on it we were ultimately unable to perform the task or job well because we had not left ourselves enough time. While some people work well with a deadline looming, it generally isn't the least stressful way to tackle something.

Why Avoidance Behaviors Magnify Stress

  • Avoidance approaches can create more anxiety.
  • Avoidance behaviors don't solve the problem and are less effective than more proactive strategies that could potentially minimize stress in the future.
  • Avoidance can be frustrating to others; habitually using avoidance strategies can create conflict in relationships and minimize social support.
  • Avoidance may allow problems to grow.

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.

This outcome can be avoided through active coping but it can be difficult to do at first. For example, conflict might bring you anxiety. If you try to avoid conflict by sidestepping conversations that could contain elements of conflict, it might feel like you are steering clear of conflict and achieving low levels of stress.

Eventually, most of our relationships—be it with friends, loved ones, and coworkers—encounter disagreements, misunderstandings, or other conflict-laden situations that need to be addressed.

If you avoid having the conversations that are necessary to resolve a conflict in the early stages, it can snowball and bring greater levels of stress to the relationship. In some cases, unresolved conflict might even end a relationship.

If this happens, you might develop anxiety over any type of conflict, as your experience might have made you believe that even a small conflict can end a relationship (which might be true if a conflict was not resolved).

If you find yourself ending relationships rather than working through conflicts, you will likely end up with many broken relationships and a sense that you're not able to make relationships "work" in the long-term.

This pattern can also apply to our thoughts. When we try to think our way out of bad situations to avoid getting hurt, we become engaged in trying to think of a solution rather than acting on one.

Trying to determine every single thing that could possibly go wrong or reviewing all the things that have gone wrong in the past that we want to avoid in the future can leave us trapped in rumination (which creates more stress and anxiety).

When Avoidance Coping Is Actually Healthy

Some forms of passive coping, however, are not maladaptive and are actually healthy. These healthier forms of coping do not necessarily approach the problem directly but they do affect our response to the problem. Remember that it is healthy to practice techniques that help you feel calmer as you face a difficult situation—even if the techniques don't affect the situation directly.

Stress relief strategies like relaxation techniques and jogging can minimize the stress response when you face a problem and even increase your self-confidence. They can empower you to face your stressors more effectively.

However, just because something minimizes our stress in one particular moment does not mean that it is a healthy form of coping. For example, eating, shopping, or having an alcoholic drink might make us feel better in the moment but they have long-term consequences if they are overdone.

If we rely on these "strategies" for stress relief they can get out of control and create more stress. Instead, it's more effective to create healthy habits that build resilience.

How to Avoid Avoidance Coping

If you find yourself using avoidance coping, look for opportunities to replace these behaviors with active coping strategies. If you've tended toward avoidance coping most of your life or at least are in the habit of using it, it can be hard to know how to stop. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you work on shedding the habit.

Understand Avoidance Coping

The first step is simply understanding what avoidance coping is and why it has become part of your life. Understanding why avoidance coping tends to be self-defeating will also help encourage you to take a more proactive and effective approach to stress management.

Recognize When You're Doing It

Take a minute to think of situations when you tend to use avoidance coping. Do you procrastinate? Do you avoid discussing problems or facing issues? Make note of these and try to actively notice when you are avoiding something in the future.

Once you are able to catch yourself using avoidance behaviors, you will be able to start working on stopping yourself and replacing these unhelpful behaviors with more effective ones.

Take Small Steps

The idea of tackling a stressful situation can feel, at times, insurmountable. That said, taking the first step can make it seem more doable. Taking a small step toward making changes to your behavior will get you headed in the direction you want to go. If you take a bigger step each time, you'll soon find yourself on a path toward active coping.

Identify Active Coping Options

The next time you are faced with a stressor, pause, and look at your options. Can you reframe your thoughts and identify resources that you didn't realize you have? Can you recognize hidden benefits in the situation that you didn't see at first? Can you approach the situation from a mental standpoint that doesn't involve avoidance? Are there strategies you can actively use that involve doing something differently to positively affect your situation?

Avoidant Coping
  • Going out of your way to avoid a co-worker you need to have a difficult conversation with and refusing to even think about scheduling time to talk because it causes you anxiety.

  • Saying "No" to an invitation to a friend's party even though you would like to go to support them because you will not know anyone else there and feel anxious about being judged by strangers.

Active Coping
  • Making a plan (and putting it into action) to talk with your co-worker while also acknowledging that you feel anxious about it. This can include putting a self-care plan in place to help you cope, setting aside a specific time in a neutral place to talk, and enlisting the help of your boss or another colleague to be a mediator, if necessary.

  • Letting your friend know that you want to support them and enjoy your time together but that you are nervous to attend a party where you don't know the other guests. Ask your friend if they can help but making introductions or giving you a specific helpful task (such as tidying up the food table) to help you feel more at ease.

Find New Ways to Relieve Stress

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 are stressed, you'll be less reactive and more empowered to be proactive when faced with conflict.

Stress relief techniques can also enhance your confidence and belief in your ability to handle any challenges that you face. Getting positive reinforcement and lowered stress will encourage you to let go of your unhealthy avoidance coping habit.

Use Emotional Coping Techniques

Journaling and meditation have been found to be highly effective for managing emotional stress. In addition to finding techniques that calm your physiology, look for strategies that soothe your emotions.

Using healthy and empowering emotional coping strategies can help you to feel less threatened by stress and more prepared to face it rather than feeling the need to escape from it.

Practice Communication Skills

If you tend to run from conflict, it could be because you do not know how to resolve a conflict in a proactive or peaceful way. If so, you're not alone: many people were not taught assertiveness skills growing up. That said, it's never too late to learn.

The first step is to become comfortable discussing issues and come up with a "win-win" solution whenever possible. When you can do this confidently, you'll be less tempted to avoid conflict in the future and more empowered to resolve it in a way that strengthens your relationships.

Have Someone Hold You Accountable

The thought of having to explain avoidance behavior to someone motivates some people to take a different approach. You might want to ask a friend to help you as you work on getting rid of your avoidance coping strategies. For example, you might ask a friend to check in with you about a project you need to start or ask if you have had that difficult conversation with your coworker yet.

Sometimes, you just need a little nudge (and support) from someone else to stop ruminating on a problem and take action.

Learn to Tolerate Uncomfortable Feelings

When you become comfortable being uncomfortable, you will be better able to deal with your feelings and the stressors that cause them. When you can sit with these hard feelings, you'll have more choices about how you want to face the problem because you won't have a knee-jerk avoidance response.

Once you become more used to it, facing your problems head-on won't bring you as much anxiety. Some people find that meditation helps them get into a place where they can be "comfortable with the uncomfortable."

One technique taught 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 how long it takes for the feeling to pass.

Observing your feelings, breathing through them, and becoming better acquainted with the idea of sitting with discomfort can help you realize that, in most cases, nothing horrible comes from being uncomfortable. You can learn to handle the feelings, allow them to pass, and move on.

Ask for Help

If you are finding it hard to make changes or are not even sure where to start, a mental health professional might be able to help. Having the skills and support of a trusted therapist can make an immeasurable difference as you learn to replace your old ways of thinking about and responding to stress with more effective ones.

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