Do you avoid your fears instead of challenging them? Learning to fix avoidance coping means you can stop hiding and start living the life you want.
When something makes you feel distressed or fearful, dealing with it head-on can make those feelings worse before they get better. Avoiding the situation entirely means you can suppress, ignore, or postpone having to sit with difficult emotions.
Many people rely on avoidance as a coping mechanism, which can seem like the easier path compared to confrontation — but avoidance can be harmful in the long run, leading to more fear, anxiety, and unhealthy habits.
Learning to fix avoidance can mean challenging what makes you feel uncomfortable. Facing your fears may seem intimidating, but even small steps can make a big difference.
Avoidance coping is when you avoid dealing with stress rather than addressing a challenge directly, even if it’s something you’re passionate about or find beneficial.
“Avoidance coping is anything we do to try not to feel our feelings,” explains Dr. Jennifer Gregg, a licensed psychologist and author specializing in avoidance from Redwood City, California. “Sometimes it involves things that work okay (e.g., watching a funny show when you’re upset) and sometimes it includes things that don’t work so well (e.g., skipping work when your boss is upset with you).”
While avoiding something can relieve your immediate anxiety, it has unhelpful long-term consequences.
“The problem with avoidance coping is that it doesn’t solve the issue,” says Dr. Jessica Goodnight, a licensed clinical psychologist from Atlanta, Georgia.
“If you’re avoiding something that scares you because it feels like too much, you never learn to overcome your fear and live more freely. Some forms of avoidance cause additional problems also; for example, binge drinking regularly whenever you’re sad can have some lasting consequences.”
What the research says
The researchers said coping methods that encourage approaching and tolerating the difficult thoughts and emotions that arise — instead of avoiding them — may help reduce the person’s symptoms overall.
Avoidance can cause issues at work, too. Research from 2017 found that avoiding difficult work relationships led to emotional exhaustion, less forgiveness, and more incivility. Instead, confronting the problem allowed more forgiveness, which can help foster workplace relationships.
Avoidance coping on the job may also cause counterproductive habits, such as social media usage and lower performance, according to a 2016 study.
Learning how to fix avoidance coping doesn’t have to involve extreme exposure methods. It can start in small ways, like simply acknowledging when you’re “avoiding” vs. “confronting.”
1. Recognize avoidance
“The first step to resolving avoidance coping is recognizing that you’re doing it — noticing the subtle and more obvious ways you’re pulling away from your feelings instead of making room for them,” says Goodnight.
Once you’ve acknowledged you’re in a moment where you’d choose avoidance, you can actively take a small step toward — rather than away from — what’s making you uncomfortable.
2. Start small
“Do one thing every day that scares you just a little; something you’d usually avoid unless you had to. When that gets easy, see if you can push yourself just a little more,” suggests Goodnight.
You don’t have to start with the largest conflict in your life. You can start with something less intimidating, but still nagging, like a bill you’ve been putting off or an appointment you’ve been meaning to make.
3. Look toward the future
Immediate relief from distress feels good, so you might regularly adopt avoidance as a coping strategy.
To help break free of this mindset, Gregg recommends focusing on how decisions will make you feel in the future.
“Take a breath, notice what you’re feeling, and think about what you will be proud of yourself for later,” she says.
4. Explore ways to problem-solve
Tacha Fletcher, a licensed clinical social worker from Rego Park, New York, suggests exploring ways to solve challenges instead of trying to escape them.
If, for example, you’re experiencing stress at work due to a co-worker, writing down some ways that might change that dynamic can help you work through your thoughts with problem-solving in mind.
It can be helpful just to have a series of steps written down so that you can re-center your thoughts when instinct tells you to avoid.
5. Seek professional guidance
Fixing avoidance isn’t always about everyday stressors.
Sometimes avoidance behaviors come from impactful life circumstances that have made it feel unsafe or undesired to engage in emotional want/need expression.
To help you understand the deeper aspects of avoidance coping, a mental health professional can work with you on the underlying causes of these behaviors.
Goodnight indicates learning how to fix avoidance often requires assistance. “In that case, I’d recommend seeking out a therapist who specializes in helping people overcome avoidance — a therapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) will know how to help.”
What causes avoidance coping?
“A lot of things can cause avoidance coping, but usually it is a learned behavior,” says Goodnight. “Maybe your parents or other caregivers expected you to put a happy face on all of the time when you were a kid.”
She adds living in an emotionally unsupportive environment, or one where there is no time or place to express emotions, can also contribute.
Fletcher notes that adverse life events, trauma, and chronic stress can all lead to avoidance coping.
Understanding its harmful impact is often necessary to know how to fix avoidance.
While there are many reasons you might learn it’s easier to avoid discomfort, avoidance coping can contribute to anxiety, depression, and harmful behaviors in the long term.
It’s okay to step outside of your comfort zone when addressing conflict. Small exposures, problem-solving approaches, and guidance when you need it can all make a big difference.