Procrastination, self-isolation, wishful thinking, passive aggressive behavior, and alcohol use. Sound familiar? These behaviors are all common examples of avoidance coping. When we are engaged in this common form of maladaptive coping, we are not directly addressing our problems, interpersonal conflicts, or difficult emotions. Rather, we are disengaging and distracting ourselves so that we might feel better in the short-term, only to suffer more in the long-term.
The temporary relief we experience through avoidance coping leads to further stress and anxiety by negatively reinforcing avoidant behavior and leading to more avoidance. Before long, we can find ourselves trapped in a cycle of ongoing avoidance and increasing distress.
Understanding reinforcement is very helpful for understanding the cycle of avoidance coping.
Generally, reinforcement is anything that makes a behavior more likely to reoccur. Negative reinforcement involves the removal of something negative as a means of reinforcement. In the case of avoidance coping, we are removing our immediate anxiety or emotional distress through avoidance, thereby negatively reinforcing avoidant behavior.
Now that we understand reinforcement, we can begin to examine our avoidance coping and the role of negative reinforcement in perpetuating the avoidance cycle.
However, before considering how you engage avoidance coping, it important to note that there is a time for healthy distraction. When we find ourselves overwhelmed or when there are no apparent solutions to a problem, we often need a break to reset and take care of ourselves. Likewise, stress relief strategies like relaxation techniques should not be mistaken for avoidance. These are subtle, yet important distinctions, as the goal of these activities is to help calm your nervous system or take a necessary break so that you can more effectively deal with challenges.
Step 1: Recognize
Avoidance coping is not always easy to recognize. Take a moment to consider the ways in which you may be avoiding people, places, or other activities.
What are some of your typical behaviors or habits when you feel anxious or distressed?
What are some things you do when you are anxious or uncertain in your relationships?
In what ways are your choices influenced by avoidance?
It is often easier to see how we engage in avoidance coping with large life-changing decisions or with specific types of challenges such as interpersonal conflicts. However, in addition to the larger or more obvious challenges we face, it is also helpful to examine the smaller ways we use avoidance coping in our daily life.
Sometimes avoidance coping is disguised as a preference. For example, we may avoid a social gathering because we don’t like the food menu or decide that we prefer email while avoiding a more direct discussion of a challenging topic.
At other times we may make small compromises or subtle choices to reduce our distress without being aware of the ways that these choices negatively reinforce our avoidance. For example, should I sleep in versus get up to exercise or should I return a phone call to a friend versus watching television. Although small, these decisions can impact our quality of life and feed into avoidance coping.
Step 2: Strengthen cognitive coping skills
Practice identifying your automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions. Automatic thoughts are the thoughts most connected to our immediate feelings and reactions. Cognitive distortions or biases are negative thinking patterns that best describe the nature of our automatic thoughts. Common distortions include all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, should statements, jumping to conclusions, personalization, and emotional reasoning.
Think of your thoughts as a talk radio station and turn up the volume. Notice what thoughts automatically come to your mind when you are experiencing a strong emotion. Choose a cognitive distortion to label your pattern of automatic thoughts.
Labeling automatic thoughts typically allows for you to step outside of your thought process and observe your thoughts from the perspective of a participant observer. This slows down automatic thoughts and allows for space to consider alternative thoughts and behaviors.
Consider the evidence for and against your automatic thoughts or conclusions. How accurate are these thoughts? How can you soften your thoughts to make them less extreme? Even if your feared outcome occurs, how will you feel in a week, a month, or a year from now? Remember the bigger picture. Remember that thoughts are not facts.
Step 3: Practice grounding skills
Deep breathing – Breathing techniques can be one of the most practical and easily accessible ways of reducing stress in the moment as they can be used at almost any point throughout the day. Practice taking a slow deep breath from your abdomen and silently count to five. Next, hold your breath for a moment and again count silently count to five. Finally, exhale slowly as you silently count to five one more time.
Five senses grounding – Use your five senses to ground yourself in the present. Notice five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can touch.
Step 4: Seek social support
Avoiding social support or asking for help is extremely common. Yet, most people appreciate the opportunity to be supportive, so it is wise to let go of any worries that you might be a bother if you reach out for support. In fact, other people usually benefit from providing support and connecting with others in this way.
Everyone experiences difficulties at some point. Therefore, it is also helpful to let go of any thoughts that suggest your concerns are insignificant or that you are somehow incapable or weak. Social support is an essential human need. Ultimately, reaching out to connect with others benefits everyone and helps us all grow stronger together.
Step 5: Approach Coping
Once we are aware of avoidance coping in our lives and we are better equipped to use coping skills and seek support, we can feel more empowered to make different decisions and move toward challenges. We can also feel better equipped to manage any difficult emotions or anxiety that arises when we face a challenge or conflict.
Turn toward something you typically avoid. Rather than criticism, try to respond to yourself with kindness and approach your reactions with curiosity. When we open ourselves up to vulnerability, personal growth and authentic human connection will follow. Ultimately, even small changes in our avoidance can readily add up to significant improvements in our self-confidence and quality of life.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
Sign up below to receive a free weekly blog to your inbox