Avoidance strategies: from escaping reality to intelligent avoidance

Sooner or later, problems will knock on our door. To address them we can implement various strategies. Coping strategies (coping) are a set of cognitive and behavioral techniques that we use to manage those external or internal needs that we perceive as a threat because they exceed our personal resources.

Some of these strategies are effective because they help us solve the problem or at least subtract the emotional impact. Others are maladaptive, usually creating additional stress and causing more problems than they solve.

Avoidant coping is a strategy that almost everyone, at some time, has put into practice and which, as a general rule, has been considered negative, so much so that even a disorder has been born, the Avoidant Personality Disorder. However, avoidance can sometimes indicate maturity, prudence, and intelligence.

We cannot forget that we generally have a natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Some of the ways we try to avoid pain are adaptive and healthy, some less so. Avoiding becomes problematic if it becomes an escape from reality, when it is a non-decisive strategy.

The most common types of avoidance strategies

Through avoidance strategies we try to overcome the stressful situation or problem, then we put into practice a series of behaviors aimed at protecting ourselves from psychological damage. Matthew McKay, a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, distinguishes between different types of avoidance 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 where they are forced to turn to a group. If we have conflicts with a person, we may avoid going to places where we know we can meet them.

2. Cognitive avoidance

It is about avoiding those unpleasant thoughts or memories that generate distress. Strategies for avoiding negative thoughts range from keeping our mind busy not thinking about what is bothering us to replacing those unwanted thoughts with fantasies, repetitive phrases, or even prayers. There are also those who resort to positive affirmations, which may provide temporary relief but do not permanently solve the underlying problem.

3. Somatic or interoceptive avoidance

Stress has a double component: emotional and physiological. When we are stressed, we can experience palpitations and chest pain caused by anxiety, shallow breathing or sweating of the hands. People suffering from claustrophobia, for example, not only fear enclosed spaces but also the physical sensations they generate, so try not to experience the sensations associated with emotional distress, avoiding those situations of everyday life that generate them, or exercise to avoid to experience tachycardia and dyspnoea.

4. Emotional replacement

This type of avoidance involves replacing one feeling with another. For example, we can replace pain or anger with another emotion that we can manage better or that we classify as more tolerable. If we believe we shouldn't feel hate, anger, or contempt, we can hide those emotions behind shame or frustration. It would be "parasitic emotions" that feed each other. In some cases we can even numb our feelings by resorting to self-destructive strategies such as alcohol and drug use, although we can also give them a creative outlet through art.

5. Protective avoidance

It consists in resorting to excessive safety behaviors to calm the anxiety and uncertainty that generate problems and conflicts. 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 keep away as much as possible the arrival of the moment we fear so much.

Lights and shadows of avoidance strategies

Traditionally, avoidant coping has been associated with negative personality traits and potentially harmful behaviors, as well as less effective problem solving. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that families who are able to adapt to stressful situations are less likely to resort to avoidance strategies.

Another study from 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. Avoidance 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 may be more effective in relieving symptoms than redefining sensation, an active coping strategy.

Other research published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology revealed that when we feel stressed, strategies that we might classify as avoidant, such as running or meditating, are effective in reducing anxiety. Indeed, these psychologists have shown that later the people analyzed ended up practicing more effective strategies for dealing with stressful situations.

This means that, in certain situations, some avoidance techniques can be particularly helpful in reducing the stress we face when we don't have the resources to address the problem directly, as we prepare to find definitive solutions. Avoiding is not always cowardice, sometimes it is prudence and intelligence.

But even so, we need to make sure that avoidant coping doesn't become the norm because ignoring problems won't make them go away. We can put some avoidance strategies into practice, but only when we are sure that the situation will naturally fade or as we prepare to seek a better answer to what is worrying us.

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