10 Psychology Strategies For Avoidance Coping

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 29, 2022

You probably recall various situations in your life that have made you uncomfortable. These experiences can sometimes lead to something called avoidance coping. When memories are too uncomfortable to address, you have an avoidance of situations where you might be influenced to speak about them to protect yourself, a defensive mechanism called avoidance coping. Unhealthy avoidance coping can lead to a variety of problems, and this article will go over a few strategies for healthy emotional coping techniques.

Avoidance Coping Alternatives

As a specific example of avoidance coping, let’s say that you come from a family that is adamantly opposed to drinking alcohol of any kind. Your new in-laws let the alcohol flow at every event, 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 have to 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.

Avoiding Conflict Doesn’t Have To Create More Challenges

More recently, you find yourself making excuses for why you can’t attend the events that they host. This is a 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 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. Many adults learned avoidance techniques early on.

Many people 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 to finally address these difficult situations or emotions without avoidance.

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.

Healthy 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. Even if it does help you feel better, you have to ask yourself, "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 like avoidance coping. You push your feelings and problems down under the water and use avoidance coping instead of letting them rise up 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 it may be when they emerge.

Avoidance Coping Strategies

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 it, you’ll be able to identify avoidance coping strategies as they’re happening.

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

  • Avoidance of taking actions that trigger painful memories, like not calling someone back if you think the conversation will be uncomfortable.
  • Keeping a low-profile, not striving to be the best, so you don’t call attention to yourself.
  • You put things off because you don’t want to know the truth, like not going to the dentist when you have a toothache.
  • Avoidance 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.
  • You pursue something and then backpedal 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.
  • Avoidance of situations that make you feel awkward like not going to sporting events even though all your friends are going.

10 Active Coping Strategies You Can Use

Something you can do to make it easier to leave an avoidance coping strategy behind is to replace passive coping with an active coping strategy. An active coping strategy is not maladaptive, 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 10 active coping strategies will help you get away from your avoidance coping habits, and help you to manage stress and uncomfortable situations in healthier ways that are not passive coping.

Avoidance Coping

Skills To Help You Succeed In Life

  1. Actively Identify Your Avoidance Coping Habits And Understand Why They Just Don’t Work. You should have a pretty good idea of what they are. If not, the next best step for you to take is to schedule an appointment with a licensed therapist. You should also 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.
  2. Note Your Avoidance Coping Strategies And The Situations That Preclude Them. 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 bad 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.
  3. Practice Stress-Reducing Exercises. The biggest struggle that people who use avoidance coping face is getting their stress under control. There are many ways to calm your mind and your body to reduce stress. Choose a calming activity like yoga, mindfulness, 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 of the game. When you use only passive coping strategies and avoidance behaviors, 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.
  1. Establish An Emotional Outlet. One of the worst 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 need to do some aerobics, take a walk or run, or engage in some type of physical activity to release your emotion. For some people, meditating or journaling is a good emotional outlet.
  2. Spend Some Time Sitting With Uncomfortable Feelings. You’ve probably gotten so used to using avoidance coping for these issues that it’s hard to tolerate feeling uncomfortable. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable with your feelings before trying to tackle them without avoidance coping. The more that you allow yourself to feel uncomfortable, it tends to be less scary and unfamiliar. 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 definitely recommended to start out using this tactic in a controlled environment where you know there is help nearby.
  3. Find some active coping options that aren't avoidance 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 dealing 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.
  4. 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 that 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 to everyone’s favor.
  5. 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 have an avoidance of 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.
  6. Try To Find An Accountability Partner. If you regularly have an avoidance of 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 have someone that you can share your struggles with, you could ask them to check in with you before and after a stressful situation to see how you did. If you didn’t do so well, you’d have a support partner that 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.
  7. 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, 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 regulate the body’s stress response. Online therapy with BetterHelp is an effective and convenient option so you can schedule your sessions in the privacy of your own home. You can get started anywhere you have an internet connection, so don’t wait to wait to recognize hidden benefits in therapy and you!
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