In psychology, avoidance coping is a coping mechanism and form of experiential avoidance.
It is characterized by a person’s efforts, conscious or unconscious, to avoid dealing with a stressor in order to protect oneself from the difficulties the stressor presents. Avoidance coping can lead to substance abuse, social withdrawal, and other forms of escapism. High levels of avoidance behaviours may lead to a diagnosis of avoidant personality disorder, though not everyone who displays such behaviours meets the definition of having this disorder. Avoidance coping is also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, avoidance coping is part of the approach-avoidance conflict theory introduced by psychologist Kurt Lewin.
Literature on coping often classifies coping strategies into two broad categories: approach/active coping and avoidance/passive coping. Approach coping includes behaviours that attempt to reduce stress by alleviating the problem directly, and avoidance coping includes behaviours that reduce stress by distancing oneself from the problem. Traditionally, approach coping has been seen as the healthiest and most beneficial way to reduce stress, while avoidance coping has been associated with negative personality traits, potentially harmful activities, and generally poorer outcomes. However, avoidance coping can reduce stress when nothing can be done to address the stressor.
Avoidance coping is measured via a self-reported questionnaire. Initially, the Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (MEAQ) was used, which is a 62-item questionnaire that assesses experiential avoidance, and thus avoidance coping, by measuring how many avoidant behaviours a person exhibits and how strongly they agree with each statement on a scale of 1-6. Today, the Brief Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire (BEAQ) is used instead, containing 15 of the original 62 items from the MEAQ.
Cognitive behavioural and psychoanalytic therapy are used to help those coping by avoidance to acknowledge, comprehend, and express their emotions. Acceptance and commitment therapy, a behavioural therapy that focuses on breaking down avoidance coping and showing it to be an unhealthy method for dealing with traumatic experiences, is also sometimes used.
Both active-cognitive and active-behavioural coping are used as replacement techniques for avoidance coping. Active-cognitive coping includes changing one’s attitude towards a stressful event and looking for any positive impacts. Active-behavioural coping refers taking positive actions after finding out more about the situation.