What is avoidance?
Do you ever find yourself…
- Starting a project and not completing it
- Never quite finishing an assignment
- Not responding to emails
- Paying bills late
If so, then you’re already familiar with avoidance behaviors.
Avoidance is the set of things we do to distract ourselves from the current task – the one that really needs doing. Perhaps your form of avoidance is cleaning your room, going out with friends, looking at social media or pretending your problem doesn’t exist. Typically we use avoidance, not only to avoid the task but also the emotions associated with the task – fear, worry, anxiety or panic.
The psychology of avoidance
To speak “psycho-babble” for a minute: avoidance is a negative coping mechanism that creates an unhelpful, self-reinforcing pattern of thinking. Avoidance may temporarily decrease your current stressor, but it doesn’t solve the actual problem. Classic example: your mountain of homework is too stressful to think about so you spend the evening watching Netflix instead. Feels good in the moment? Yes. Do you regret it later when your homework problem is till staring at you? Also yes.
In fact, avoidance may make your problem become larger. While you are avoiding the negative feeling caused by the stressor, the stressor does not disappear, it does not go away, and it does not become invisible. It does remain unattended and may cause larger, long-term problems.
Are you avoiding?
Maybe you’ve just started college and feel overwhelmed by everything that is new. You begin to stop checking your emails, you ignore payment deadlines, and pretend that everything is fine. This creates negative reinforcement: you ignore what you do not want to face and then you are no longer stressed by it (temporarily). You momentarily relieve the stress of new things and the fear, worry or anxiety dissipates. Then someone talks to you about your lack of response, you suddenly have late fees, a deduction in marks or you miss an important meeting. Avoidance has created a bigger problem which you now have to face bringing with it all the previous emotions you were ignoring. What doesn’t kill you…gives you a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a really dark sense of humor.
So how do you avoid avoidance?
Here are three positive coping strategies you can try instead of avoidance. They’ve all been shown to contribute positively to mental health (Law & Guo), whereas avoidance has a negative impact on mental health (Eskin, Akyol, Çelik, & Gültekin).
There are positive coping strategies you can implement instead of avoidance. Problem solving, social support and future thinking have been considered a positive contributors to mental health, whereas avoidance has been regarded as a negative one.
Strategy 1: Instead of Ignoring, Try Problem-Solving.
Alberta Einstein once said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Problem solving is something that occurs within your mind every day.
Have you ever:
- Calculated how long it would take you to arrive on time
- Determined what steps to take to attain a certain career
- Figured out how to get from point A to point B.
Then you are familiar with problem solving! This can be a great tool to replace avoidance behaviors.
So back to that mountain of homework. It’s stressing you out to the point you’re tempted to just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead, do a little problem-solving. How could you break the mountain down into manageable chunks? You could come up with a plan:
- I’m going to write down all my assignments and their due dates.
- I’ll decide on the three pieces that should be my highest priority.
- I’ll make a list of ‘next steps’ for each piece (go to the library? read the chapter? schedule an interview/meeting?)
- I’ll spend a solid three hours this evening making progress on at least one of those steps.
Problem-solving doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished everything. What it does mean is that you’ve stopped pretending the issue doesn’t exist, and you’re deciding on the best ways to take action.
Strategy 2: Think Long-Term instead of Short-Term
Future-thinking is another helpful way to move past avoidance. When you notice yourself avoiding a task, intentionally take a few minutes to think through how this could affect your future. If you’re tempted to delay paying off a bill, think about what will happen long-term. You could be de-registered from classes, or end up with bad credit, or need to pay lots of extra interest charges. If you avoid answering a certain email, you might create a negative impression on the other person. Not handing in an assignment on time will lower your grade.
Are these fun things to think about? No. They may even feel stressful! But by taking the time to think about the consequences, there’s a good chance you’ll discover the inner motivation to push past your avoidance and tackle what needs doing. You’ll remember how worthwhile it will be!
Strategy 3: Instead of Distracting Yourself, Try Connection.
OK. So avoidance can be a bit embarrassing. Your friend asks you how you’re doing, and you answer vaguely, “Pretty good. Feeling a bit overwhelmed about ________.” It can feel tough to admit that you’ve been ignoring something, whether it’s a major something or a minor something. So you change the subject, and try to focus on fun together.
Community can make a huge impact in your life. Get involved on campus, make friends, and find social support. Try tapping into the power of vulnerability and positive peer pressure. Instead of ditching homework together, ask your friends if they’re willing to help you solve your problem instead of avoiding it. Talk to your classmates about the paper you have due, and plan a brainstorming session so you can decide the best ways to get it done. The stronger your social support network, the better you will be a problem solving & coping (Li, Eschenauer, Persaund).
Also remember that the Columbia staff and faculty are human beings who have been where you are. They are full of advice and ideas for moving past avoidance and making progress on your priorities. It’s a great idea to ask for help!
Facings your fears and stressors with these three coping strategies will better your life. Not only will you benefit, the people around you will benefit too. Here’s a little cheatsheet to help you remember. Try putting it somewhere visible!
- Instead of ignoring, try problem-solving
- Instead of denial, try future-thinking
- Instead of distracting yourself, try social support
Finally, if you need a little help applying these strategies (and everyone needs a little help sometimes), make an appointment with Columbia’s Counselling Services. They will be thrilled to help you face what you’ve been avoiding and start taking positive steps in your life.
Laura Abraham graduated with her BA in Caregiving & Counselling from Columbia Bible College and went on to earn her MA in Counselling Psychology from TWU. She served as Columbia’s Financial Aid Advisor until recently, and is now a school counsellor at MEI as well as a registered clinical counsellor in private practice, working with ThriveLife Counselling & Wellness.