Blog Short #171: Breaking Free: Confronting Avoidance Coping Head-On
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You’ve heard the expression, “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” Usually, that means, “Don’t exaggerate some small problem into something much bigger than it is.”
But that’s exactly what happens when you avoid dealing with something that needs your attention and won’t go away.
It grows and gets bigger until you can’t ignore it. Sometimes, it spreads like weeds in a vegetable garden that multiply and eventually choke your plants.
Ignoring issues that require your attention is called “avoidance coping,” which is today’s subject.
What is Avoidance Coping?
According to the American Psychological Association, avoidance coping is:
Any strategy for managing a stressful situation in which a person does not address the problem directly but instead disengages from the situation and averts attention from it. In other words, the individual turns away from the processing of threatening information.
In a few words, you avoid attending to, thinking about, feeling, or doing something you find difficult or might make you anxious.
What Happens When You Use It?
You get immediate relief when you avoid something that might be emotionally taxing. You don’t make that phone call, don’t attend a social event where you don’t know anyone, close your computer and avoid a work task, or put off a difficult conversation.
In all those cases, you breathe a sigh of relief because you don’t have to deal with them right now.
But you know what happens next, right? The situation comes back around again and again until you do pay attention, only now, it’s harder. The problem has snowballed, and you’re in deep.
A 10-year study found that avoidance coping created more life stressors four years down the road and was correlated with depression ten years down the road.
That’s a conservative view. You might feel more stress and depression earlier than that.
Avoidance takes an emotional toll. Although you put something away thinking you’ll return to it later, it hangs out in your subconscious and uses up emotional energy. Even if you aren’t thinking about it every day, it keeps surfacing like a wisdom tooth that wants to come out. It’s painful.
If what you’re avoiding involves anyone else, you might also create frustration and conflict in your relationships because you’ve dropped the ball.
Why People Use Avoidance Coping
We’ve already established that avoidance is a means of sidestepping anxiety, stress, and pain. But here are some more specific reasons you might use avoidance coping:
- Avoid uncomfortable feelings
- Avoid conflict or having people mad at you
- Sidestep tasks that require too much energy or you don’t know how to do
- Fear of failure
- Fear of negative feedback
- Avoid feeling guilty
- Social anxiety
- Avoid emotional triggers from past experiences
- Fear of rejection
- Put off decisions that have significant consequences
These are just some. There are many reasons you might use avoidance that are more specific to the situation at hand, but this gives you an overall picture.
How to Turn It Around
The opposite of avoidance coping is called approach coping, although I like Elizabeth Scott’s label better: she calls it active coping. Instead of avoiding, you take action to deal with the stressor. That’s a bit obvious, but your actions will vary depending on the situation.
Here’s what you can try.
1. Recognize when you’re doing it.
This task isn’t as easy as it might seem because if you’re in the habit of avoiding things or certain types of situations, you do it automatically. For example, if you have difficulty dealing with painful or negative feelings, you might automatically suppress them.
The goal in this first step is to get better at observing yourself and noticing when you avoid something – small or large – and how you do that. What shape does it take? Are you avoiding people, work, emotions as we’ve just talked about, decision-making, conflicts, setting boundaries?
Take an inventory. Keep a log or journal, and start writing your observations down. Review them at the end of the day. You don’t have to take action yet. Right now, you just want to know when and how you’re avoiding.
2. Take baby steps.
What’s something easy you can correct? Choose a small thing you can take action on to get done that you’ve avoided.
It could be something you’re in the habit of avoiding, and by changing that trajectory once, you can get better at it every time until you’ve switched your automation from avoidance to doing.
Keep taking things off your avoidance list and working at them. You’ll gain some traction with the small successes, so you feel more confident approaching complex situations. You’ll also get in the habit of dividing things into steps when required so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
3. Improve problem-solving and communication skills.
Improving your skills at problem-solving and communicating will go a long way in helping you shift from avoidance coping to active coping.
Problem-solving skills that help include:
- Identifying the issues at stake
- Breaking them into smaller components
- Prioritizing them in terms of what should be dealt with first
- Setting up the tasks to get to the goal
- Executing them
When you lack these skills, you get overwhelmed by complex problems or situations. Get some training, read up, or talk to someone who can mentor you. It’ll make a world of difference.
Communication skills are necessary for healthy relationships, conflict resolution, setting boundaries, and social interaction. Even something as simple as calling to set up an appointment or schedule a service requires clear communication.
You can learn better communication in many ways: courses, books, practicing with people you know well and are at ease with, and public speaking groups like Toastmasters.
Start small by working on expressing yourself more clearly in non-stressful situations and work your way up.
4. Tackle triggers and fears.
Do a thorough review of your emotional triggers. These likely are rooted in your history. List them. By doing this, you’ll become aware of when they’re surfacing and causing you to avoid situations you need to confront.
Part of this process is learning to distinguish between what once was and what currently is. Although a situation may be reminiscent of a past experience, it’s not the same, and you are not the same as you were when it happened.
You have choices and the authority to handle them differently now. To use that authority, you’ll need to correct any distorted thoughts and perceptions you have in the present.
If your triggers feel overwhelming or deep-seated, get some help sorting them out.
Fears are often entwined with triggers, and you address them simultaneously. But fears can also stand independently and are not necessarily rooted in your history. For example, if you’re shy or lacking in confidence, you may resist speaking up in meetings at work or setting boundaries.
There’s a great book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. You’ll appreciate this book if you have fears you’d like to overcome or are holding you back.
5. Play out your current avoidance into the future.
Look down the road a month, year, or five years. What will that look like, and what will you regret?
Doing this makes you look at the snowball effect of avoiding something, which might help you take some action to prevent it.
One Last Thing
Keep in mind that part of dealing with any psychological issue takes time and patience.
It also helps to keep yourself mentally and emotionally fit by regularly practicing stress reduction exercises like meditation, exercise, adequate sleep, relaxation techniques, and controlled breathing routines (square breathing). All those things add to your resilience and make it easier for you to handle challenging situations.
That’s all for today!
Have a great week!
All my best,
Holahan, C. J,. Moos, R. H., Holahan, C. K., Brennan, P. L., Schutte, K. K. (2005, August). Stress generation, avoidance coping, and depressive symptoms: A 10-year model. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 73(4), 658-66. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.73.4.658
Scott, E. (2024, Jan 12). Avoidance Coping and Why It Creates Additional Stress. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/avoidance-coping-and-stress-4137836
VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/avoidance-coping