Research has consistently shown that when it comes to stress, the use of avoidance coping is ineffective as it does not effectively reduce the negative physical, cognitive and emotional impacts of that stress. At least not in the long-term. In the short-term, avoidance coping may appear to be effective but in actuality, in the long run, it will make you more susceptible to stress, less resilient and less adaptable. Life (and survival itself) is all about adaptability so we certainly don’t want to reduce our ability to be good at that. What is avoidance coping though and how would we know if we were engaging in it?
Stressors are arbitrary events. They hold no power. They are inert. They are inactive so to speak. We, as humans, impose importance upon these arbitrary stressors through our perceptions, beliefs, values, etc. By imbuing these arbitrary stressors with language (‘good’, ‘bad’, etc) and our emotions (happiness, disappointment, etc), we transform these arbitrary stressors into events of significance. Stressors can only lead to stress if we perceive the stressor as having ‘NEGATIVE’ significance to our lives. If we perceive a stressor as having ‘POSITIVE’ significance to our lives, then it won’t be perceived as stressful. The problem with avoidance coping is that we are unfairly and unjustly labelling and perceiving ALL POTENTIAL STRESSORS as ‘negative’ through the very act of trying to avoid them.
If we employed this logic system to any other area of our life, we would quickly notice the inherent absurdity of avoidance coping. Imagine avoiding all babies because one baby threw up on you. In a way, the logic of avoidance coping underlies racism. Or sexism. What is racism? It is the unfair judgment of someone based on their racial or ethnic group. Racism works on the logic of “if some African American people behave in one particular way, then all African American people also behave in that one particular way” or “If I dislike one Asian person for any reason then I must dislike all Asian people for the same reason”.
This is exactly what avoidance coping is though. By engaging in avoidance coping, you are discriminating against stressors simply because SOME stressors may lead to stress (which is entirely you’re doing through your perceptions – remember the whole transforming arbitrary stressor things we just spoke about)? In a way, the act of avoidance coping is causing us to shifting the blame and responsibility for our stress onto the stressor when in reality, the stressor is the innocent party in all of this. They were just standing idly by until we came along, plucked them out of a crowd and placed significance upon them. Anyway, to get back onto topic, let us have a look at some typical avoidance coping strategies many people might use.
Physical avoidance: This is pretty simple. It involves physically avoiding whatever it is you are concerned will cause you distress. For example, calling in sick to work so that you don’t have to see your co-worker. Driving the long way around so that you don’t drive past your ex’s house. Those sorts of things.
Cognitive avoidance: Again, like the above, its about avoiding ANY AND ALL thoughts associated with the distress. This might involve taking drugs or drinking alcohol, playing video games non-stop, watching movies non-stop. There is a big difference between healthy distraction and avoidance distraction. Basically, anything which distracts your mind from focusing on ANY ASPECT of the distress is avoidance distraction.
Emotional avoidance: This may involve consuming drugs and alcohol to ‘numb’ the emotional distress. It may manifest as self-harming behaviours (trying to externalize the distress), dissociation or conscious or unconscious emotional manipulation (“everything is awesome”).
Withdrawal: Withdrawal is probably the most recognisable avoidance coping strategy. Withdrawal involves all three of the above. Healthy or adaptive withdrawal has a lot of benefits as it allows us time to process what is happening inside and outside of us without added pressures. Unhealthy or maladaptive withdrawal occurs when a person is not allowing themselves to process what is occurring. This is most likely because they are too overwhelmed that they are unable to mentally process what they are thinking or feeling.
Procrastination: This is probably the next recognisable avoidance coping strategy. Again, procrastination is associated with cognitive, physical and/or emotional avoidance. The problem with procrastination is that it keeps the distress in our minds longer that what it would if we just completed or approached whatever it was that we were avoiding. For example, if you had a disagreement with a work colleague, and you are calling in sick for a week straight, then the distress is in your mind for at least 7 days. If, however, you went into work, talked with your colleague, discovered the conflict was a misunderstanding and resolved the conflict successfully, then your distress lasted for only a day at the most.
It is important to recognise that when mental health professionals offer strategies to manage or overcome stress, suggesting going for a walk or engaging in worry time is not about avoidance. The key behind these strategies is to minimise being overwhelmed so that the person can continue to process and resolve whatever it is that is going on for them. My next post/article will explore APPROACH coping and how approaching that which causes you distress may actually work out better for you in the long run.