So understanding how avoidance coping works can also give you clarity on how your anxiety and/or depression can come into being, as well as how you can find new ways of being that lessen your anxiety and depression.
One way to see coping avoidance is like a fan applied to the flames of your depression or anxiety, sending you in an endless loop. Your very attempt to avoid stress tends to backfire and create more stress. You end up more anxious or depressed then you originally were.
For example, you might do what is called ‘cognitive avoidance’, where you try to avoid your thoughts. So you decide not to think about the fact that you don’t have any money, because it makes you feel low. But it leads to you not having enough rent, which of course would increase your stress. If you then lost your apartment, you might find yourself depressed.
Behavioural avoidance would involve not doing something because it was stressful. Perhaps you decide not to have a needed confrontation with a family member – until a massive blowout leaves you much more anxious than you originally were.
Not sure you believe avoiding things is behind your depression or anxiety?
A 10-year study of over a thousand middle-aged individuals showed that after four years, those who used avoidance coping had more chronic and acute life stressors than those who didn’t. At the ten year mark it was shown that this manner of managing stress was definitely linked to rates of depression. So while the subjects might have been stressed or depressed to begin with, it was not life itself, but the ways they chose to react to their stress and depression, that generated more life stressors – sobering statistics.
The positive side of understanding avoidance coping is that it clarifies how powerful changing the way we respond to stressors can be. If we find the support we need to identify our avoidance coping and learn and practice new ways to respond to stress, we can stop spiralling into depression.
Therapies that help with avoidance coping
Most types of talk therapies can help with avoidance coping, because they help you see the ways you think and behave, and why.
You might not have even realised you were avoiding things in life until in the therapy room. Your therapist can also help you come up with new possibilities for dealing with things you find stressful, and be a support system as you try these new ways of thinking and behaving.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is one form of therapy that works well for avoidance coping. It focuses on the link between the way you think, feel, and behave, helping you create a sort of stop gap between a thought and an action, where you can choose to behave in an all new way. With practise such new and productive ways of behaving become habit, and your negative thought patterns recede.
Acceptance and commitment therapy is another therapy that works well if you want to change your ways of coping. It uses mindfulness as one of its main tools, helping you become more aware of yourself on a moment-to-moment basis. ACT has as its goal to help you accept what you can’t control, while at the same time recognising what you actually can, then committing to taking the actions that will improve things for you.