Sooner or later, problems will knock at our door. To deal with them we can implement different coping strategies. Coping strategies are a set of cognitive and behavioral techniques that we use to manage those external or internal demands that we perceive as a threat since they exceed our personal resources.
Some of these strategies are effective because they help us solve the problem – or at least subtract emotional impact. Others are maladaptive, so they usually generate an added level of stress and cause more problems than they solve.
Avoidance coping is a strategy that almost everyone, at some time, have put into practice and that, as a general rule, has been considered negative. However, sometimes avoidance can be a sign of maturity, prudence and intelligence.
We cannot forget that, as a general rule, we have a natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Some of the ways we try to avoid pain are adaptive and healthy, others less. Avoidance becomes problematic when it becomes escapism, when it is a non-solution strategy.
The most common types of Avoidance Coping Strategies
Through avoidance coping strategies we try to overcome the stressful situation or the problem, so that we set in motion a series of behaviors aimed at protecting ourselves from the psychological damage that can cause us. Matthew McKay, a professor at Wright Institute in Berkeley, distinguished between different types of avoidance coping strategies:
1. Situational avoidance
Situational avoidance is one of the most used avoidance strategies. It consists in avoiding – as far as possible – the situation that is causing us problems or that is a source of conflict. People who are afraid to speak in public, for example, can avoid situations in which they are forced to address a group. If we have conflicts with a person, we could avoid going to places where we know we could find him.
2. Cognitive avoidance
It is about avoiding those unpleasant thoughts or memories that generate anguish. Strategies to avoid negative thoughts vary from keeping our minds busy so as not to think about what worries us to replace those unwanted thoughts with fantasies, repetitive phrases or even prayers. There are also those who resort to positive affirmations, which can provide temporary relief but do not definitively solve the problem at the base.
3. Somatic or interoceptive avoidance
Stress has a double component: emotional and physiological. When we are stressed we can experience from tachycardia for anxiety and anxiety chest pain to shallow breathing or sweating in the hands. People who suffer from claustrophobia, for example, not only fear the enclosed spaces but also the physical sensations that they generate, so try not to experience the sensations associated with emotional distress, avoiding those situations of daily life that they generate, and exercise to avoid experiencing tachycardia and dyspnea.
4. Emotional substitution
This type of avoidance coping involves replacing one feeling with another. We can replace, for example, pain or anger with another emotion that we can manage better or that we classify as more tolerable. If we believe that we should not feel hate, anger or contempt, we can hide those emotions behind shame or frustration. It would be “parasitic emotions” that feed on each other. In some cases we can even numb our feelings by resorting to self-destructive strategies such as alcohol consumption and drugs, although we can also give them a creative outlet through art.
5. Protective avoidance
It consists of resorting to excessive security behaviors to calm the anxiety and uncertainty that problems and conflicts usually generate. If we feel insecure in the relationship, for example, we can try to calm that insecurity by taking excessive precautions to protect our home. If we are afraid of finishing a project, we can protect ourselves behind the search for perfection to postpone as much as possible the arrival of the moment we fear.
Lights and shadows of Avoidance Coping Strategies
Traditionally, avoidance coping has been associated with negative personality traits and potentially harmful behaviors, as well as with less efficacy in solving problems. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicated that families capable of adapting to stressful situations are less likely to resort to avoidance strategies.
Another study conducted at the University of Queensland revealed that people who use avoidant and passive strategies, such as resignation and withdrawal, tend to experience more stress.
However, evasion is a natural response. Avoiding is not always a maladaptive mechanism. Sometimes avoidance is smart and has beneficial results. A study published in the Psychological Bulletin revealed that when people experience pain, avoidance strategies such as distraction can be more effective in relieving symptoms than redefining sensations, an active coping strategy.
Other research published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology revealed that when we feel stressed, strategies that we could classify as avoidant, such as running or meditating, are effective in reducing anxiety. In fact, these psychologists proved that later, these people analyzed, ended up implementing more effective strategies to deal with stressful situations.
This means that, in certain situations, some avoidance coping techniques can be particularly beneficial in reducing the stress we have to deal with when we do not have the resources to deal with the problem directly, while preparing to find definitive solutions. Avoiding is not always cowardice, sometimes it is prudence or intelligence.
Still, we must ensure that avoidance coping does not become the norm since ignoring problems will not make them disappear. We can implement certain avoidant strategies, but only when we are sure that the situation will be extinguished naturally or while we prepare to seek a more resounding response to what concerns us.
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