NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, November 6, 2022

What is Avoidance Coping and How Is It Related to Anxiety?

Avoidance coping is a common maladaptive coping strategy that avoids stressors rather than dealing with them directly.  Avoidance coping also goes by the names of avoidant coping, avoidant behavior, procrastination and passive aggressive behavior (see my article: Changing Maladaptive Coping Strategies That No Longer Work For You: Avoidance).

Avoidance Coping and Anxiety

Why Do People Use Avoidance to Try to Cope With Stress and Anxiety?
Avoidance coping is often used by people who are anxious and get stressed easily.  They feel temporarily relieved not to deal with the anxiety and stress.  But in the long run it only makes the problem worse, more stressful and more anxiety producing (see my articles: What is the Difference Between Functional and Dysfunctional Anxiety? and How to Increase Your Tolerance For Uncertainty to Reduce Your Anxiety).

How Does Avoidance Coping Create More Anxiety and Stress?
Here are some of the ways that avoidance coping creates more anxiety and stress:
  • Avoidance coping, which can temporarily decrease anxiety and stress, creates more anxiety and stress in the long run because problems get worse and you feel worse about yourself, which creates a negative spiral.
Avoidance Coping and Anxiety

  • Avoidance coping doesn't resolve the problem.
  • Avoidance creates frustration for you and for others who are affected by it.
  • Avoidance often creates conflict with others who are upset about problems that aren't being addressed.
  • Avoidance may cause others to withdraw emotional support because they feel frustrated when you don't deal with problems directly.

Clinical Vignette: The Link Between Avoidance Coping and Anxiety and How to Overcome Avoidance Coping
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information removed, is a common scenario.  It shows how anxiety and avoidance coping are linked and how therapy can help:

Ever since she could remember, Gina experienced a lot of anxiety whenever she had to confront a difficult situation.  

She grew up in a family where both her mother and father were highly anxious.  They tended to catastrophize whenever they were faced with a difficult situation which, in turn, made Gina anxious as a child. 

Gina often saw her parents become excessively worried on a regular basis when they had to file their taxes, fill out any kind of official papers, deal with any kind of deadline or confrontation or handle any situation where they felt uncomfortable.

Rather than deal with stressful situations directly, Gina's parents often procrastinated until they couldn't procrastinate any more.  Then, they would try to rush to solve problems that had become worse because they didn't deal with the issues early on.  This only created more anxiety for them, which fueled more avoidance, and so on.

Gina didn't learn to develop healthy coping skills as a child because she wasn't taught to develop them by her parents.  Instead, she internalized their way of avoiding and delaying (see my article: Intergenerational Family Dynamics).

This meant that homework assignments were often done at the last minute or, if she was anxious about a test, she wouldn't prepare for it and she would delay going to class until she was late.  This often meant she had less time to complete the test.

Over time, Gina's avoidance got worse as her anxiety got worse.  Anxiety fueled avoidance and avoidance fueled anxiety until Gina often felt like she was spiraling out of control.

Since she was smart, Gina got good grades in college, but she often created more anxiety for herself by procrastinating with papers and projects.  

After graduation, Gina became a newspaper journalist.  She loved the work and she was enthusiastic about the topics she worked on but, due to her anxiety and propensity to use avoidance to try to cope with anxiety, she usually delayed turning in her story until the last minute.  

She was often up until all hours of the night working in a frenzy to get her assignments in by the deadline.  These all nighters were taking a toll on her sleep so that she often felt exhausted and even more anxious.

After she got married, Gina and her husband, Tom, would argue about her procrastination.  Early on in their marriage, Gina took on the task of paying bills, which she often paid late because money issues made her highly anxious.  

After a while, the late payments affected their credit score, which made it difficult to get a mortgage when they wanted to buy an apartment.

Tom urged Gina to get help in therapy to deal with her anxiety and procrastination.  She assured him time and again that she would seek help in therapy, but her anxiety about confronting her problem got in the way of her seeking help.

Over time, Gina's anxiety and procrastination continued to get worse.  After she missed three work deadlines in a row, she was terminated from her job and the shock of this crisis finally brought her into therapy.

Gina'a therapist provided her with psychoeducation about how Gina was using a maladaptive strategy of avoidance to deal with her anxiety.  Her therapist helped Gina to gain insight into how she made matters worse for herself.

They also worked on her unresolved childhood trauma of feeling unsafe as a child in a home where her parents were highly anxious and, as a result, were unable to provide her with an emotionally stable home environment (see my articles: Overcoming Unresolved Childhood Trauma and How Emotional Avoidance is Related to Trauma).

Her therapist used Parts Work to help Gina deal with the internal parts of herself that were avoidant (see my article: How Parts Work Therapy Can Empower You).  

They also used EMDR therapy so she could work through unresolved childhood trauma (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Achieves Emotional Breakthroughs).

Over time, Gina learned to develop healthy coping strategies to calm herself and deal directly with issues instead of using avoidant coping strategies (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Strategies).

Gradually, starting with relatively small issues that she would normally avoid, she learned to deal with increasingly stressful tasks and situations.

There were times early on when she was tempted to cancel her therapy sessions as part of her avoidant behavior.  However, she learned not to give in to this urge, especially when she saw that she was feeling and coping better.

Tips on How to Overcome Avoidance Coping
The scenario above about Gina illustrates how avoidance coping is related to anxiety and how it can get worse over time without help.

Here are some tips you can try if you want to overcome avoidance coping:
  • Acknowledge that You Use Avoidance Coping: One of the biggest problems with people who use avoidance coping is that they often avoid admitting to themselves that this is a problem for them.  They make excuses even to themselves.  But if you see a pattern, it's important to acknowledge the problem so you can deal with it.
  • Learn About Avoidance Coping: Understanding why avoidance coping makes matters worse is important to changing it.
  • Recognize That You're Using Avoidance When You're Doing It: Rather than avoiding looking at your avoidant behavior, become aware of it as it's happening.  Catching yourself in the moment is important if you want to change this behavior.
  • Take Small Steps:  Rather than starting with a big stressful task or situation, start with something small and work your way up to bigger tasks and situations as you achieve success with the smaller steps (see my article: Expanding Your Window of Tolerance).
  • Identify Healthy Coping Strategies: If your usual way is to avoid stressful situations, think about what else you can do that would be a healthier way of coping.  Do you know someone who deals with stressful situations well?  Observe what they do and see if you can use some of their strategies (see my articles: Mindfulness Meditation Can Reduce Anxiety and The Benefits of Journaling).
Getting Help in Therapy
You're not alone.  Avoidant coping is a common issue.  

Getting Help in Therapy

Unfortunately, avoidant coping often gets worse over time as it gets reinforced over and over again.

The good news is that working with a licensed mental health professional can help you to deal with the underlying issues that created your anxiety and avoidant coping so you can overcome these issues and cope in a healthier way.

Once you deal with issues as they develop, you can feel more confident and live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many people to overcome trauma, anxiety and avoidant coping (see my article:  What is a Trauma Therapist?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.