Do you ever find yourself starting something and not completing it? If so, then you’re familiar with avoidance behaviours.
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 it: fear, worry, anxiety or panic.
Avoidance is a negative coping mechanism that creates an unhelpful, self-reinforcing pattern of thinking. It may temporarily decrease your 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. It feels good in the moment, but you regret it later when your homework problem is still staring at you.
Avoidance may even make your problem larger. While you are avoiding the negative feeling caused by the stressor, the stressor does not disappear.
Maybe you’ve just started college or university and feel overwhelmed. You stop checking 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, at least). Then someone talks to you about your lack of response, you suddenly have late fees, marks are deducted or you miss an important meeting. Avoidance has created a bigger problem that you now have to face, bringing with it all the previous emotions you were ignoring.
Avoidance is a negative contributor to mental health, but there are strategies you can implement that are positive contributors to mental health.
Strategy 1: Instead of ignoring, try problem-solving
Problem-solving is something you already do every day. This can be a great tool to replace avoidance behaviours.
Back to that mountain of homework. It’s stressing you out, and you’re tempted to ignore it. 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 of 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 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 a bill, think about what will happen long term. You could be de-registered from classes, 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
Avoidance can be embarrassing. Your friend asks how you’re doing, and you answer vaguely, “Pretty good. Feeling a bit overwhelmed about _____.” It’s tough to admit that you’ve been ignoring something. So you change the subject and try to focus on fun together.
Community can make a huge impact on 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 at problem-solving and coping.
Also, remember that the staff, faculty and counsellors where you go to school 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.
Laura Abraham is a school counsellor at Mennonite Educational Institute in Abbotsford, B.C., as well as a registered clinical counsellor in private practice. This article originally appeared in a longer format on Columbia Bible College’s website. Visit lauraabraham.ca.
Avoidance may temporarily decrease your stressor, but it doesn’t solve the actual problem. (Photo by Aaron Epp)