Avoidance coping strategies involve avoiding stressful situations, experiences, or difficult thoughts and feelings as a way to cope.1, 2 While avoidance provides short-term relief, overusing it can cause more stress.1, 3, 4 Ignoring or denying problems, procrastinating, canceling plans, or using substances are all examples of avoidance-focused coping skills.2, 5
What Is Avoidance Coping?
Avoidance coping temporarily reduces stress by avoiding certain situations, thoughts, or feelings.1, 2, 4 Some people use cognitive avoidance strategies to distract themselves, ignore problems, or avoid dealing with their stress. Others rely on behavioral avoidance strategies like avoiding people, places, and situations that cause stress or anxiety.1, 2
Avoidance coping is generally viewed as unhealthy and ineffective because being avoidant doesn’t address root causes of stress, and tends to increase stress and anxiety when overused. Most avoidant coping skills are efforts to find instant relief from stress, even when it makes things worse in the long run.
Research indicates that avoidance coping has many unwanted consequences, including lowered self-esteem, higher stress, and poorer physical and mental health.1, 2, 3, 4
7 Avoidance Coping Examples
The most obvious avoidance coping example is avoiding stressful or scary situations; however, there are many other forms of avoidant coping. These include trying to distract yourself or avoid thinking about a problem that’s stressing you out by staying busy or minimizing or denying a problem.
Using drugs, alcohol, or other vices to escape reality, quiet your mind, or numb emotions can also be an unhealthy avoidance coping mechanism (i.e., escape avoidance coping).
Here are seven avoidance coping examples:
1. Situational Avoidance
Many people who struggle with anxiety disorders often avoid situations that trigger their anxiety, not realizing that this usually worsens anxiety in the long-term. Examples of situational avoidance include canceling social plans or a doctor’s appointment that you’re stressed or anxious about, or making an excuse to not go on a beach trip because you’re insecure about being in a bathing suit.
Denial, a common form of cognitive avoidance, is a defense mechanism where you ignore, minimize, or outright deny having a problem. Examples of denial include refusing to acknowledge there are problems within your marriage or job because you’re afraid of change or don’t want to think about any issues.
Denial can also include normalizing a problem to reassure yourself or others. Overusing humor to make light of a problem can be another unhealthy form of avoidance coping.5
Procrastination is avoidance of a task because you see it as too difficult, overwhelming, or stressful. People who procrastinate avoid starting, working on, and completing tasks by putting them off or delaying them. Chronic procrastinators often make (and break) promises to themselves and others that they’ll do something later. Examples include pushing back a start date for a diet or waiting until the last minute to study for an important test.
Another avoidance coping mechanism is to actively seek out distractions to avoid having to think about a problem. External distractions like technology or mindless activities may be go-to distractions during times of stress or discomfort. Throwing yourself into work (i.e., becoming a workaholic) or other chores can be an unhealthy distraction tactic used in avoidance coping.1, 5
Misusing drugs or alcohol to cope is a particularly destructive form of avoidance as a coping mechanism. People who drink or use substances to cope are more likely to develop addictions than those who use for social or recreational reasons.8
Examples of using substances as a form of avoidance coping include drinking to quiet your mind, de-stress after a bad day, or numb your emotions.2, 5 This kind of avoidance can also show up as a behavioral addiction to food, sex, shopping, porn, or other online activities.
While venting is sometimes healthy and necessary, it can become unhealthy when it’s overused, especially when it never leads to a discussion about possible solutions.3, 5 For example, calling a friend or coworker to complain about your job may help you feel some momentary release, but it won’t fix your problems. This is an example of an avoidance coping skill that seems normal, but can become unhealthy.2, 5
7. Resigned Acceptance
Resigned acceptance is a form of cognitive avoidance that some people use to cope. It involves believing that there’s nothing you can do to fix or control a stressful situation. For example, telling yourself that there’s nothing you can do or “no point” in trying to make things better. Often, these beliefs are used as an excuse to avoid taking any action to improve or change your circumstances.2, 3, 5
Other Coping Mechanisms
A lot of the research on avoidance as a coping mechanism suggests that most people cope in one of two ways: by either approaching or avoiding the sources of stress. Active coping styles are usually healthier and more effective than avoidance coping styles.1, 3
Most healthy coping skills don’t just reduce stress; instead, they directly address the problems causing it. These active coping skills are used by people with an approach-focused or problem-focused coping style. Most unhealthy coping skills are used by people with an avoidance- or emotion-focused coping style that aims to lessen stress and feel better in the moment.1, 2, 4, 5
Active vs. Avoidant Coping
Active coping styles are defined by:1, 4, 5, 6, 7
- Directly confronting the problem or stressor
- Using resources, skills, and supports
- Using a problem-solving approach
- Focusing on controllable aspects of the issue
- Finding ways to improve the situation
- Long-term stress reduction and stress management
- Boosting confidence and self-efficacy
- Working through difficult emotions
Avoidant coping styles are defined by:1, 4, 5, 6, 7
- Avoiding, denying, or escaping the problem or stressor
- Taking a passive approach or shutting down
- More likely to withdraw or give up
- Linked to feeling helpless
- Using an emotion-focused approach
- Avoiding thinking about the issue/problem
- Short-term stress reduction
- Lowered confidence and self-efficacy
- Suppressing or avoiding difficult emotions
When Do People Use Avoidance as a Coping Mechanism?
Avoidance is used in a wide variety of situations, including:
- Avoiding actions & places that trigger painful memories: If you could encounter a situation that triggers painful memories, you may choose to avoid the situation to avoid the memory.
- Avoiding feeling awkward: No one likes feeling awkward, so you may avoid situations where discomfort is likely.
- Wanting to stay out of the limelight: Even good attention can make people uncomfortable. If the spotlight could be on you, you may use avoidance.
- Avoiding starting a task you’re not sure how to complete: Not knowing how to complete a task may be embarrassing or difficult, and you may avoid that situation to avoid those feelings.
- Avoiding certain physical sensations: Pain, hunger, and even needing to use the bathroom are all unwanted physical sensations. You may avoid situations that may produce those feelings.
- Avoiding any potential for someone to be mad or disappointed: The idea that someone is mad or disappointed in you can seem unbearable, so you never attempt things that could create this result.
- Avoiding working toward a goal because of anxiety: Working on a goal can be scary because you could lose confidence in your ability to finish. Because of this, you may avoid starting.
Avoidance Coping Causes
Everyone has a natural, instinctual drive to avoid situations and actions that cause pain and seek out those that cause pleasure. Still, this threat detection system can malfunction, causing false alarms to go off for falsely perceived threats. Avoidance is essentially a flight response that people use when they perceive a threat, even when it’s not one they can (or should) run from.
People with avoidant coping styles often have more sensitive threat detection systems and experience more false alarms. The more they rely on avoidance strategies, the more sensitive their threat detection systems become, causing more false alarms.
Risk factors that could cause avoidance focused coping are:4
- Having a family history or genetic disposition to anxiety or certain mental illness
- Certain personality traits or psychological make-up
- Early childhood experiences including poor parenting or trauma
- Having a chronic health or mental health disorder
- Seeing avoidant coping modeled as a child
- Having higher levels of baseline stress or anxiety symptoms
Why Avoidance Coping Doesn’t Help
Aside from several key exceptions, avoidance coping doesn’t work because it doesn’t solve problems or address root causes of stress. Research shows that people with avoidant coping styles are more likely to be anxious, depressed, and struggle with low self-esteem.3, 4, 6 They get stressed more easily and often, and are overall less happy and healthy than people with active coping styles.1, 3, 4, 6, 9
Exceptions are when avoidance coping can provide short-term benefits in certain situations. For example, if there is an actual risk or threat, avoidance is adaptive and can help to protect you from harm. Avoidance can also help you function and cope in the short-term, especially when faced with circumstances or problems that you can’t fix or control.1, 3
The Link Between Avoidance Coping and Anxiety
Anxiety may drive you to avoid a person, place, thing, or situation. Unfortunately, in these situations, avoidance only increases the anxiety. To stop the cycle of avoidance and anxiety, you must expose yourself to the stressful situation, as long as it is safe. With this exposure, you realize you had little to fear and anxiety will decrease.
When Avoidance Coping Can Be Healthy
Knowing the difference between healthy and unhealthy avoidance is crucial. Avoiding harmful people and situations is an essential part of life.
If there are sharks in the water or snakes on the trail, it is best to stay away. The same is true for avoiding:
- Situations and people linked to substance use
- Harmful and toxic people
- Dangerous areas
- Physical strain
- Overworking or too much stress
How to Stop Avoidance Coping
To stop avoidant coping and learn better ways to cope, consider seeking professional help from a therapist. That said, there are also actions you can take on your own to address avoidance.
Here are 13 tips if you want to stop avoidance coping and start addressing your problems head-on:
1. Identify the Problem or Source of Stress
Stress, anger, anxiety, or other difficult emotions are often signals that are meant to communicate that something isn’t right. People who use healthy approach coping skills follow difficult emotions and stress to find the root cause.
When you’re stressed, consider the following:
- What is weighing the heaviest on me right now?
- Where is the majority of my stress coming from?
- What about this situation is causing me the most stress?
2. Recognize When You’re Being Avoidant
Seeing the stress is important, and noting your response is essential. Are you being avoidant in this situation? Is it a healthy or unhealthy form of avoidance? Remember, many times, avoiding something is a positive coping skill, but it will not be positive all the time.
3. Use Your Body to Feel Your Feelings
Learning how to experience (rather than avoid) emotions is a key step in overcoming avoidance coping.9, 10 Allow yourself to fully experience and feel your feelings, even the ones you don’t like. Resist the urge to ignore them, distract yourself, or do something that will make you feel better in the moment. Instead, focus on the sensations in your body and allow yourself to feel your emotions.
4. Focus on the Aspects of the Problem Within Your Control
You’re more likely to use avoidance coping strategies when you feel helpless and overwhelmed, which is often when you’re focusing on things you can’t control. By identifying the aspects of a problem or stressful situation that you can control, the problem may seem more manageable.9 Start by making a list of what is in your control and what’s not, and you’ll begin to manage your feelings of overwhelm.
5. Practice Active Coping Mechanisms
Active coping mechanisms that actually help you process and overcome negative feelings will be much more beneficial in the long-term. Journaling about your feelings and triggers, doing deep breathing and grounding exercises, and even yoga are great active strategies to help you cope with stressful events.
6. Make an Action List of Ways to Improve the Situation
Taking action is a main difference between healthy coping and unhealthy avoidance coping style.1, 4 For this reason, the next tip is to make an action list of things you can do to improve your situation or address the sources of your stress. While not all of these actions will guarantee the outcome you want, they can make it more likely to occur.
7. Break Your Action List Into Small Steps
An action list is helpful, but people prone to avoidance may become overwhelmed by all the items. To avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed, break the list into smaller steps that are clearer and easier to accomplish.
8. Lean On Your Support System & Ask For Help
Asking for help is a positive and healthy way to cope with stress, and is often the opposite of the withdrawal tactics used in avoidant coping.9 The best way to ask for help is to consider what kind of help you need, including specific things that you can ask for (e.g., look over your resume, provide moral support, etc.)
9. Develop Healthier Lifestyle Habits & Routines
Healthy lifestyle choices are also great for your mental health. These include basic things like improving your sleep, diet, and exercise routine.9 Setting goals to improve your lifestyle and develop healthier habits is a win-win and can be a great way to lower your stress.10
10. Gradually Face Your Fears
Since a lot of avoidance is driven by fear, learning to cope in healthier ways means being willing to face your fears. Make a list of things you avoid and rank each on a scale of 1-5 according to how much stress and anxiety they cause. Begin with smaller, less stressful situations and gradually work your way up to more difficult ones.
These same methods are used in exposure therapy, which is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety and specific phobias.
11. Use Mindfulness & Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation can help lower stress, anxiety, and depression.10 If you’re new to these practices, try using a guided meditation or downloading a meditation app. Even doing 5-10 minutes a day can help you reduce your stress and anxiety by training your mind to focus on the present vs. getting distracted or caught up in your thoughts.
12. Think More Positive Thoughts
If you struggle with negative, worried, or self-critical thoughts, one of the best ways to begin coping in healthier ways is to work on being more positive and optimistic. Doing so can help lower your stress and improve your ability to cope.10
Here are ways to think more positively:
- List positive outcomes when you’re worried about the what-if’s
- Interrupt self-critical thoughts with self-compassion exercises
- Write down three things you feel grateful for each day in a gratitude journal
13. Improve Your Self-care In Healthy Ways
Eating a pint of ice cream or binge watching Netflix is more likely a form of unhealthy avoidance coping vs. self-care. True self-care includes any activity or strategy that gives you something positive back. List activities that boost your mood, improve your health, or provide more mental energy or motivation, and build these into your routine. Examples include exercise, yoga, reading, hobbies, or time with friends.
Therapy for Avoidance Coping
One of the most common goals in therapy is to teach people healthier, more effective methods of coping with difficult thoughts and feelings. Therapy can also help address some of the root causes of avoidance coping, including toxic stress, anxiety, or depression.
If you or someone you care about needs help learning healthier ways to cope, you can search an online therapist directory to find a therapist that specializes in counseling for stress reduction. You can also use search filters to see if your health insurance covers the cost of therapy.
Final Thoughts on Avoidant Coping
At some point in most of our lives, we will avoid stressful or difficult experiences, thoughts, and feelings; however, too much avoidance coping can backfire. Overuse is linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and other physical and mental illnesses.1, 3, 4, 6, 9 Active coping or approach coping skills are healthier alternatives because they help you deal with the root causes of stress, rather than just providing temporary relief.