What’s Avoidance Coping And Alternative Strategies To Cope

If I had to sum up the overall vibe of the past two years in a single word, it would have to be “rollercoaster.” We’ve experienced clunky “ups” and stomach-dropping “downs.” We’ve been hit with emotional stress at every turn. In tumultuous times like these, we have two choices: we can strap ourselves in and [...] Read More... The post What’s Avoidance Coping And Alternative Strategies To Cope appeared first on Lifehack.

Jan 16, 2023 - 15:32
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What’s Avoidance Coping And Alternative Strategies To Cope

If I had to sum up the overall vibe of the past two years in a single word, it would have to be “rollercoaster.” We’ve experienced clunky “ups” and stomach-dropping “downs.” We’ve been hit with emotional stress at every turn.

In tumultuous times like these, we have two choices: we can strap ourselves in and hang on tight, bracing ourselves to face them head-on, or we can cover our eyes while wishing desperately for the ride to end.

Though the latter response may be intensified due to the pandemic, humans have forever turned to avoidance coping when life gets uncomfortable or scary. Also called avoidant coping, it’s when we run and hide from our challenges instead of dealing with them.

There are many examples of avoidance coping. You may instantly conjure images of a woman stuffing her anxiety down with donuts or a man numbing his despair by drowning it in whiskey. But some other common forms of avoidance coping may not be so easily recognizable.

Avoidance Coping: Busyness as an Escape Mechanism

Some circumstances are unavoidable, but it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of busyness as an escape mechanism. This is especially true when we don’t recognize it for what it is.

For example, there’s the unsettling conversation we know we need to have with a partner, coworker, or child, but we’re “too busy” to deal with it right now. We tell ourselves it can wait until we get a few other things off our plate first. Or how about the heartache we feel over current events?

Deep down, we know we need to do something about this gray blanket of gloom that hangs over us, but we “don’t have time” for that now. We have to power through! We’re too busy to pause or even slow down.

It’s moments like this when all the common avoidance methods kick into turbo. When we convince ourselves that there’s no time to feel—much less act—we turn to those easy, unhealthy coping mechanisms as a way of pushing through.

On the surface, it seems there is no alternative. But deep down in our heart of hearts, we know. We know that if we pause, we might notice our feelings. And just the thought of that is too much to bear.

Facing our fears and frustrations is hard. It requires being honest with ourselves, meaning we must take at least a moment to acknowledge that the mindless stuff we do each day is actually an avoidant coping mechanism.

With acceptance comes courage. We can face our challenges and build our resilience muscles. We can shift into healthier habits.

Avoidance Coping Is Counter-Productive

One compelling reason to change our responses to stress is that avoidance coping is proven to develop more stress, not less. In fact, it actually causes us to develop deeper mental distress issues, including depressive symptoms.[1]

This creates a snowball effect. The more we avoid our emotions, the more stressed we feel, and the more we resort to these unhealthy avoidant habits. But you can end this vicious cycle by shaking up your emotional stress responses.

3 Alternative Strategies to Cope

Here are three effective alternative strategies to cope without being avoidant.

1. Do the Opposite

Our brains like the easy route, so once we’ve established a surface pattern, our behaviors will follow that pattern because it can be performed without much effort.

This path of least resistance becomes a rut we find ourselves stuck in. The first step to pulling ourselves out requires us to break that pattern.

If you tend to grab your phone and start scrolling in moments of boredom or overwhelm, set a timer for five or ten minutes screen-free. Brew a cup of tea. Organize a drawer. Write a quick but thoughtful note to a friend or loved one.

If your go-to is to plunk down onto the couch with the remote and a drink, do something a little more active or engaging. Get up and go outside. Sit on your porch or go for a walk. Notice the green of the grass, the sweetness of the breeze, and the song of a bird.

Our avoidance coping strategies pull us deep into a pit of tuning out the world around us, even as we seek to numb ourselves within. Taking a moment to tune back in and embrace our awareness is one small but mighty step toward reclaiming our power.

Reconnecting to the intricacies of our surroundings helps us create constructive coping skills. Paying attention to the way the tree branches sway may seem pointless. You might even argue that it’s the same avoidance-by-distraction tactic you’d already been using.

The difference here is mindfulness and accomplishment.

Vegging in front of the TV or scrolling through an app provides neither of these benefits, while here we’re taking intentional action that’s actually helping us achieve something. This simple shift engages our mental faculties in our habits.

You’ll start to notice that the chaos in your mind starts to untangle as you relax both mentally and physically. Fresh insights may pop into your brain seemingly out of nowhere.

The solutions to your problems are within you. You just need to create the space to notice.

2. Write It Right

Once you’ve broken out of the stronghold that mental ruts can hold over you, it’s possible to reroute those neural connections for a new pattern.[2] Success hinges on our ability to engage in what neuropsychologists call “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Simply put, this is when we intentionally change our habits through active reflection.

One simple habit to help establish this is mindful journaling. Writing is a powerful exercise in processing our emotions, and it’s more than just analyzing our thoughts. Documenting our true feelings in a private space that’s for “our eyes only” helps us to understand them and then work through them.

You can take this a step further by writing about your shifts from avoidance coping activities to healthy coping strategies.

For example, say you switch from your usual comforting sweets during a moment of duress to nurturing yourself with a nourishing snack or meal. Noting this down in your journal can create a potent form of reinforcement of your new habit. It also serves as a great reminder for the future.

When you look back on your journal and see how many times you did something different—something healthier—it will motivate you to repeat this new behavior.[3]

It’s helpful to note what you were feeling in the moment, what actions you might have felt tempted to engage in, and the more efficient strategies you applied in this situation. You could also document how you felt afterward, both about the stressful situation and your self-supportive actions to remedy it.

3. Mind Your Body

When you find yourself reaching for unhealthy habits you now realize are avoidance coping strategies, take a moment to pause. Ask yourself, “Where do I feel stress in my body?”

You might notice tension in your neck and shoulders or a knot of unease in your stomach. Our muscles and organs either hold or process our emotions, depending on our actions. Research shows a direct link between physical actions and our emotions.[4]

When seeking to change our stress responses, one area of our bodies that’s especially effective to target is the vagus nerve. This longest cranial nerve of the body (originating in the brainstem) has branches that connect with several organs, tissues, and other nerves, a few of which are also known to directly correlate with stress. This includes our tongues, vocal cords, neck, and psoas muscle (hip flexor/ front of the thigh to lower back).[5]

Here are a couple of simple physical actions that are known to help relieve both physical and mental stress.

Lion’s Breath Stretch

Simply open your mouth, stick out your tongue, and “roar” (or let out an audible sigh) as you exhale.

This might feel awkward, but it is highly effective at releasing repressed emotions.[6] It stimulates both the tongue and the vocal cords, as well as releases tension in the jaw.

I practice this stretch in moments of high anxiety, like being stuck in traffic or when my high-strung dog won’t stop barking. It is a quick and simple way to acknowledge that I need a release at this moment, and then give that to myself.

Shen Men Acupressure

The Shen Men points, located at the top inner point of each ear, are directly integrated with the vagus nerve.

Place the tip of your index finger on the front and your thumb on the back. Gentle pressure here reduces anxiety in people experiencing work-related emotional distress.

One theory is that pressure on this point reduces stress hormone levels in the nerves.[7]

It’s Not Easy, But It’s Worth It

Life will always have its inevitable twists and turns. The pandemic has turned up the dial on this, but it’s always been there simmering under the surface.

No matter what’s going on around us, effective coping requires us to face our fears and sit in discomfort sometimes.

It’s not easy. But the more we practice, the easier it gets. When we can make space for the feelings we’d rather not feel and nurture instead of abandoning ourselves, the more quickly we can move through them into a space of calm resolution.

And even if we can’t fix all of our problems this way, we can at least accept them and show up to support ourselves through the tough times. We can be our own best allies and advocates. We can let go of avoidance and turn instead to coping strategies that work.

Featured photo credit: Francisco Moreno via unsplash.com


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Angela Chan Abracadabra! Keep smiling!