Escape Avoidance

There are times when individuals fail to cope actively with a stressful situation and instead engage in efforts to avoid confronting the stressor. Attempts at escape and avoidance can take a variety of cognitive or behavioral forms, such as wishful thinking, distancing, denial, or engaging in distracting activities. For example, an individual may attempt to repress thoughts of a recently deceased spouse as a cognitive means of

Coping with Stress escape-avoidance. Likewise, one could immerse oneself in cleaning the house as a way of avoiding a stressful task such as paying bills. As Aldwin noted, certain ways of coping can serve as avoidant coping strategies on one occasion despite serving as approach coping strategies on another. As an example, Aldwin suggests that cognitive reappraisal may function as a constructive approach strategy when used to view a stressful situation more positively and when acting as a catalyst for further action. Conversely, cognitive reappraisal may serve as an avoidant coping strategy when used to rationalize a lack of action or justify engaging in actions that lead to further avoidance (e.g., drinking to make oneself feel better).

Avoidant coping strategies are often a response to the negative affect that results from a stressful situation. For example, some individuals may initially deny that a stressful situation has occurred in an effort to minimize their distress (e.g., not accepting the possibility that a lump in one's breast may be cancer). Researchers such as Lazarus have suggested that in the early stages of a stressor, such avoidant type strategies may be adaptive in that minimizing distress levels allows one time to adapt and to gather one's resources. By decreasing levels of distress, short-term escape-avoidance may increase one's ability to engage in active problem-focused coping. Similarly, the use of escape-avoidance may minimize negative affect while one is waiting for a potentially short-term stressor to pass (e.g., reading a magazine to relieve anxiety while waiting to hear the results of an important medical test).

Despite the positive short-term effectiveness of escape-avoidance in reducing psychological distress, the long-term use of escape-avoidance is generally associated with lowered psychological well-being. For example, although distraction is useful when coping with short-term stressors (e.g., medical and dental procedures), long-term use of distraction with an ongoing stressor (e.g., coping with unemployment) is associated with maladjustment. The negative association between the use of escape-avoidance strategies and well-being may result from the lack of constructive action that the continued use of escape-avoidance can entail. That is, when avoiding thoughts or behaviors that are directed at a stressor, one also tends to avoid engaging in constructive efforts that could potentially reduce both the source and degree of one's distress. In extreme situations, the use of prolonged escape-avoidance can backfire by amplifying a stressful situation and creating added emotional distress (e.g., avoiding obtaining medical attention until it is too late to receive basic treatment).

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