by Andrea M. Darcy
‘Coping’ in psychology refers to thoughts and behaviours we use to navigate stressful experiences.
We can cope in an active way, which means we try to find solutions that move us past the stress.
Or we can choose to cope in a passive way, trying to escape or ignore the stress.
Avoidance coping is this second category.Instead of dealing with stress by being proactive and seeking solutions, you think and act in ways all geared to deny, minimise, or avoid what is stressing you.
Typical signs you are using avoidance coping
What are the signs that you are indeed using avoidance coping?
1)If you have an uncomfortable feeling, thought, or memory, you are likely to stop doing the things that is causing it.
- I feel really nervous each time I go to a party lately, so I just won’t go to social events anymore.
- Anything that reminds me of how my ex hurt me is awful, so I’ll just avoid relationships altogether.
2) You avoid attention, including negative attention like others being upset with you.
- I don’t want other students to be upset if I do too much better than them so I don’t always do my best.
- I hate it when my boss is upset with me, so I work overtime even when it’s not fair.
3) You put off dealing with things in life that could cause you stress or have negative outcomes.
- My dog has been sick lately, but I won’t take her to the vet incase he says she’s dying.
- The man at the shop flirts with me so I just stopped going to that shop.
4) If a task or project makes you anxious or you can’t see how you’ll finish, you quit.
- Yes, I have a free space to use, but I don’t know how I’d ever find enough people to come to this workshop I want to teach so I won’t offer it.
- Every time I try to teach myself piano I feel silly so I think I’ll quit.
5) You might even try to get away from physical sensations.
- Anytime a man touches me I am sure he is thinking I am fat so I just avoid any physical encounters.
- I like the numb feeling of overeating so I just keep eating to avoid that hungry feeling.
Why is avoidance coping important to understand?
It’s a strong contributing factor to anxiety and depression, and the things that arise from these two conditions, such as low self-esteem, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse.
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.
Harley Therapy puts you in touch with both cognitive behavioural therapists and ACT therapists. If you can’t make it to one of our London locations, we also connect you to online therapists you can access from anywhere.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and mentor, with training in person-centred counselling and coaching. Avoidance coping was definitely her go to, she had to learn to move beyond it! Find her on Instagram @am_darcy