Ten Psychology Strategies For Avoidance Coping

Updated March 23, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You probably recall various situations in your life that have made you uncomfortable. These experiences can sometimes lead to something called avoidance coping. 

The American Psychological Association defines avoidance coping as any kind of strategy that helps someone manage stressful circumstances by disengaging from the situation and driving attention away from it rather than addressing the problem directly.

In simple terms, avoidance coping is when someone has to face an uncomfortable situation, they turn and run instead of facing stress in a more proactive or peaceful way. 

Have you ever heard of fight or flight? Well, avoidance coping is the "flight" part. Avoidance coping includes escaping from it, wishful thinking, isolating restraining emotions, or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. These are considered maladaptive strategies. Unhealthy avoidance coping can lead to a variety of problems, and this article will go over a few strategies for healthy emotional coping techniques.

What Does Avoidance Coping Look Like?

Let’s say that you come from a family that is adamantly opposed to drinking alcohol in any quantity or capacity. Your new in-laws include alcohol at every event they hist, from a baby’s baptism to weddings and funerals. Your new spouse respects your wishes to also be an alcohol-free family; however, whenever you host a gathering with your in-laws, you face a barrage of questions and comments about having a “dry” party. The comments make you so uncomfortable that you’ve stopped inviting them over - psychology tells us that this is avoidance coping.

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Avoiding Tough Conversations Can Create More Long-Term Stress

More recently, you find yourself making excuses for why you can’t attend the events that they host, using unhealthy coping mechanisms to avoid social situations. This is another prime example of avoidance coping - rather than find a way to manage this stressful situation, you just use avoidance. These kinds of avoidance behaviors and avoidance strategies may reduce stress in the short term, but they can lead to greater emotional stress in the long run.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) explains that children with school refusal problems often use avoidance coping skills. They may pretend to have headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or other physical ailments. This is where the cliché of pretending to be sick comes from. It’s common for these children to be argumentative, defiant, or aggressive in their avoidance coping. Often, adults learn avoidance techniques early on.

Many people may find themselves in similar situations and continue living with these avoidance coping strategies because they simply don’t know any other coping skills or proactive strategies, like facing stress head-on. There are ways to overcome this coping mechanism and finally address these difficult situations or emotions without avoidance.

What Is The Long-Term Effect Of Avoidance Coping?

Maladaptive coping isn’t healthy even though it feels effective in the short term. People think avoidance coping can be helpful because they believe that it reduces stress and prevents anxiety from overwhelming them. The reality is that avoidance coping actually creates stress and anxiety and breaks down self-confidence, through means like prolonging sensitive conversations, influencing someone to make assumptions about others’ thoughts or feelings, and creating room for resentment when others don’t meet our expectations (even though we haven’t communicated them). In cases where we find ourselves avoidance coping, we have to ask, "Is this a long-term solution?" 

Think of an inflatable beach ball. You can push that beach ball under the water all you want, but it gets harder and harder to hold it there. And when you inevitably let go of that beach ball, it doesn't just rise to the surface calmly... it explodes out of the water. This is similar to how avoidance coping works. You push your feelings and problems down under the water and use avoidance coping instead of letting them rise out of the water. Eventually, your feelings will rise to the surface, and the longer and deeper you push them down, the more explosive and harmful they may be when they emerge.

Healthy Versus Unhealthy Coping Strategies: Alternatives To Avoidance Coping

Before we get to active coping strategies, it’s important to be able to recognize maladaptive coping strategies. When you’re conscious and mindful about mhe, you’ll be better able to identify avoidance coping strategies as they’re happening.

Among this list, can you find examples of some avoidance coping strategies:

  • Refraining from taking actions that trigger painful memories, like not calling someone back if you think the conversation will be uncomfortable

  • Keeping a low-profile, or not striving to be the best, so that you don’t call attention to yourself

  • Putting things off because you don’t want to know the truth, like not going to the dentist when you have a toothache

  • Steering clear of situations that might make someone mad at you, like making sure you always have coffee in the house even though you aren’t a coffee drinker

  • Starting to pursue something and then backpedaling when your anxiety starts to set in, like taking a leadership position and then backing out when you realize it will put you in a position of power, and you feel stressed about the responsibility

  • Avoiding situations that make you feel awkward, like not going to sporting events even though all your friends are going.

Something you can do to make it easier to leave an avoidance coping strategy behind is to replace avoidant (or passive) coping with an assertive (or active) coping strategy. An active coping strategy is not maladaptive behavior, in fact, it's the opposite. Active coping strategies are both healthy and effective in both the short term and the long term. Research of passive coping strategies found that it is important to avoid avoidance coping since they exacerbate stress over time, while active behavioral coping addresses the problem to its core. The following ten active coping strategies can help you replace your avoidance coping habits manage stress and uncomfortable situations in healthier ways.

Identify Avoidance Coping Habits And Understand Why They’re Maladaptive 

You should have a pretty good idea of what they are. If not, the next best step for you to take may be to schedule an appointment with a licensed therapist. You will also want to have a fair idea about why using avoidance coping for these issues doesn’t work in the long run. By putting a name to them, you’ll be more apt to take your goals seriously and try some active coping strategies instead. By working on your stress response, you can identify activities that involve avoidance, like financial stress, and approach coping with a stress management mindset.

Note Situations That Preclude Your Avoidance Coping Strategies

Do certain situations always make you anxious? Do you dismiss them and try to get your mind off them? Instead of having a knee-jerk avoidance response for short-term stress relief, you can learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, create healthy habits, and reduce stress in the long term. When you can recognize your regular maladaptive coping habits, you can be proactive about planning for them ahead of time. When you can make a pivotal switch in real time, you’re making progress.

Practice Stress-Reducing Exercises

Often, the biggest struggle for people who use avoidance coping face is getting their stress under control. There are many ways to quiet your mind and your body to reduce stress. Choose a calming activity like yoga, mindfulness, or listening to music or relaxing sounds to get your body into a relaxed state. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, you’ll already be a step ahead. When you use only passive coping strategies and avoidance behavior, you can exacerbate stress. But, if you approach coping with more proactive strategies and healthy habits like meditation, yoga, walking, or other relaxation techniques, you will find that such behaviors positively affect your mental standpoint. These exercises help attune the body’s stress response so that you can avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts altogether. Furthermore, you can get started on almost all of these techniques for free, which can minimize financial stress.

Exercise can be a good coping mechanism.

Establish An Emotional Outlet

One of the most harmful things that you can do is to keep bottling up your emotions. When more stress mounts and these negative feelings arise from life events, avoidance coping creates as much anxiety or more than you already had. You’ll find that you’ll feel better if you can find a release for them. Depending on your personality and your emotional makeup, it might be a physical or non-physical outlet. You may benefit from engaging in some aerobic activity, like taking a walk or run, or performing some type of physical activity to release your emotion. For some people, meditating or journaling is a good emotional outlet.

Spend Some Time Sitting With Uncomfortable Feelings

You’ve perhaps gotten so accustomed to using avoidance coping for challenging issues that it may be hard to tolerate feeling uncomfortable. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable with your feelings before trying to tackle them with or without avoidance coping. The more that you allow yourself to feel uncomfortable, the less scary or unfamiliar they may seem. If you can sit with uncomfortable emotions and feelings, they will probably pass at some point without using avoidance. Most people find that they can handle more than they thought. This isn't coping but rather a type of exposure therapy, and it is recommended to start out using this tactic in a controlled environment where you know there is help nearby.

Find some active coping options that you want to try. Try to mentally reframe situations to see them from a different perspective. Is there anything that you can gain from the situation, or are there additional ways of coping with your emotions rather than resorting to avoidance coping? Can you find some active coping strategies that will help to turn the situation around? There’s nothing to lose by trying something new.

Develop Better Ways Of Communicating About Conflict

You may have ideas about how to resolve potential conflicts, but actually putting your ideas into words that other people are receptive to can be challenging, even for people who are naturally good communicators. That doesn’t mean that you have to cave in all the time. During these times, it helps to remember the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. When you use the right words, you can often come to a meaningful agreement that works in everyone’s favor.

Think Small

If you don’t feel up to tackling a stressful situation, try tackling part of it. Having a small success can easily lead you to a larger one. If you avoid many different uncomfortable situations, pick an easier one to tackle and implement some active coping strategies. One success using active coping strategies will likely lead to another.

Try To Find An Accountability Partner

If you regularly feel an avoidance toward certain things, you may lose your confidence to follow through on using active coping strategies even when you’ve planned everything in advance. If you didn’t do so well, it may help to have a support partner who will encourage you to try again. It may be easier to stick with your plan when you know someone supportive is waiting in the wings to hear all about it. Besides, it never hurts to get an outside perspective. It is important to not minimize social support along your journey to effective coping techniques.

Enlist The Help Of A Licensed Professional Therapist

Even when you know what to do, such as follow some of these stress relief strategies or perform some of these active cognitive coping mechanisms, it can be difficult to follow through on getting rid of your old avoidance coping habits completely on your own. For some, managing emotional stress, developing stress relief techniques, and overcoming avoidance coping can be rather difficult. It can take a lot of work to stop stress avoidance and alleviate stress in the long term.

Licensed therapists have been trained in how to help you find active ways of handling situations that are troubling you in an efficient way, such as the ability to identify active coping options, practice communication skills, and learn techniques to manage the body’s stress response. Online therapy with BetterHelp is an effective and convenient option so you can schedule your sessions in your own home. You can get started anywhere you have an internet connection, so don’t wait to wait very long to recognize the hidden benefits in therapy and you!

Many studies have yielded results affirming the effectiveness of online therapy in helping people who use avoidance coping tactics to both face their fears or uncomfortable emotions and develop active coping strategies. In a meta-analysis of virtual reality exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapy (VRE-CBT), researchers found that the intervention was just as successful as in-person CBT in treating more severe anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. A separate study aimed to test an online CBT model’s efficacy of supporting college students in developing active coping strategies to treat depression, stress, anxiety, and/or insomnia. Conclusions indicated that the method was promising as a supplement to traditional face-to-face counseling.


When we avoid initiating important conversations or taking necessary steps to solve the challenges in our lives, we can invite significantly more stress into our worlds. The what-ifs and mental labor of guessing how people will respond to our requests and assertions can be just as stressful, if not more, then preparing for and going through a tough conversation or act. 

It is okay to feel nervous about doing or saying things that scare us or threaten our identity – part of being human is experiencing that fight-or-flight response. The important thing to remember is that our humanness allows us to reason past basic responses. We can acknowledge our fear while stepping confidently into the future. Take that first step today by reaching out to a licensed, support therapist at BetterHelp.

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