Avoidance and its negative effect on stress management

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Some time back, I noticed that one of my team members would steer clear of meetings with new clients and came up with any excuse to avoid face-to-face meetings. While I dismissed it in the beginning because she’s otherwise excellent at what she does, this proved to be difficult when clients asked me where she was during meetings.

At some point, I knew I had to have a chat with her. After we wrapped up one of our meetings, I asked our head of HR and this particular team member to stay back. I told her why we were having a chat.

“We want to help you through whatever it is that’s keeping you from attending client meetings. This is a safe space and we aren’t here to judge you. How we can help you?” I asked her.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t really know,” she told me. “I become anxious when I try to talk to strangers face-to-face. I know it’s getting in the way of work but I can’t help but try and avoid meetings with new people.”

“How long have you been avoiding this?” I asked and she told us that she’s been doing it since high school. She had been carrying this burden for years and it came to a point where it became habitual for her to disengage from situations when there were new or unknown people involved.

Given my line of work, I’ve seen plenty of times how avoidance tends to make situations worse instead of making them better. Let’s take a look at why this is the case and why stress management needs to be more meaningful than simply running away from your problems.


What is avoidance coping?

Avoidance coping is considered a maladaptive or unhealthy stress management tactic because it often aggravates stress or stressors in the long-run. In other words, it involves trying to avoid stressors rather than dealing with them directly.

While it may seem that avoiding stress is an effective way of dealing with the more unpleasant aspects of our lives, this isn't necessarily the case. Anxious people may be particularly susceptible to avoidance coping because it initially appears to be a way of avoiding anxiety-provoking thoughts and situations.

Unfortunately, this type of stress management tends to exacerbate anxiety.

Those who are naturally prone to anxiety may have learned avoidance as a stress management technique early on and, perhaps, have a more difficult time learning proactive stress management strategies later on in life.

What are the negative effects of avoidance?

Procrastination is an avoidance mechanism where people avoid doing things that make them feel stressed or anxious.

When it comes to avoidance through procrastination, the problem with this is that we usually don't stop thinking about what needs to be done. This leads to more stress in the long run because we haven’t dealt with what we need to - we’ve only delayed the inevitable.


Here are other ways avoidance behaviour magnifies stress:

  • Avoidance doesn’t actually solve the problem that’s causing the stress. It exacerbates the stress you feel over a longer period and persists until you deal with it. 
  • Avoidance can make problems worse because you’ve avoided dealing with them.
  • Avoidance can alienate the people around you because you don’t engage with them when it comes to certain issues.
  • Using mindfulness as an effective stress management technique

Using avoidance coping to consciously or unconsciously avoid something that causes anxiety can lead to more challenging situations. This is why it’s important to use active coping as an effective stress management strategy, even if it feels difficult at first.

This is exactly what mindfulness does. It helps you face stressors head-on, without avoiding them, by assessing them without any judgment, preconceptions or bias, allowing you to make objective decisions and think problems through more calmly and rationally.

Awakened Mind is a mindfulness resource that is designed to support mental health in the workplace. If you are struggling with stress, use our powerful and structured mobile app to practice stress management in a sustainable and healthy way.