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Why Avoidance Coping is the Most Important Factor in Anxiety

Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball.

Flickr/Pink Sherbert Photography
Source: Flickr/Pink Sherbert Photography

"Avoidance coping" refers to choosing your behavior based on trying to avoid or escape particular thoughts or feelings.

It can involve "doing" (e.g., someone who excessively washes their hands to try to get rid of fears about contamination) or "not doing" (e.g., when someone indefinitely puts off having an awkward conversation).

Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.

How Avoidance Coping Leads to Increased Anxiety

Here are some examples related to anxiety disorders, but the principle applies to anxiety generally.

  • People with panic disorder engage in avoidance coping (including not leaving their home in some cases) in order to try to avoid panicky feelings. The more they try to avoid situations that might trigger panicky feelings, the more almost every situation begins to trigger panicky feelings.
  • People with eating disorders put tremendous effort into avoiding feeling fat, but the more they do so, the more their lives are consumed by weight and shape concern.

A non-clinical example is when people who fear abandonment act needy (e.g., they ask their partner, "Do you promise you won't leave me?" repeatedly) and their reassurance seeking (aimed at reducing their fears) creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because their partner gets sick of needing to provide reassurance.

Even rumination can be considered a type of avoidance coping. When people engage in rumination (overthinking) they are typically trying to think their way out of uncomfortable emotions. A common example is ruminating to try to escape feelings of uncertainty

How to Overcome Avoidance Coping

1. Recognize that it doesn't work.

Ask yourself: What have you been trying to avoid? Have you been feeling awkward? Feeling anxious? Have you had thoughts of not being good enough? Do you still have those feelings or thoughts?

2. Recognize the costs of avoidance coping.

Ask: What has avoidance coping cost you? How much time and mental energy has avoidance coping sucked up? How has it impacted your health? How has it affected your relationships? How has it affected your sense of yourself as a competent person?

3. Learn to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

You need to learn how to tolerate experiencing thoughts and feelings you'd prefer not to experience until they naturally pass (thoughts and feelings are, by their nature, temporary). If you can do this, you won't need to use avoidance coping.

Being prepared to experience anxiety will overall lead to less anxiety. Things that can help with this include:

  • Learning to soften rather than tense in response to triggering thoughts and feelings or when you catch yourself doing a self-defeating behavior.
  • Learning physiological self-soothing skills (for example: teaching yourself how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system by doing things like slow breathing, which in turn slows down your heart rate and makes it easier to think more clearly).
  • Learning to recognize that thoughts are often distorted so you can't always trust any negative thoughts you have.
  • Building up your capacity to self-regulate—e.g., if you're prone to overeating, then setting a schedule for eating that meets your energy needs. Then, only eating at these times—not eating outside these times or skipping scheduled eating times.
  • Using "defusion" skills to reduce the psychological grip of intrusive thoughts. For many people, defusion skills are highly effective but at first glance they seem quite odd. For example, singing your intrusive thoughts to the tune of a familiar song.
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