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Avoidance and anger as maladaptive coping

Posted by Veronica  Grigore

1072 Days Ago


When someone responds to us in a certain way (with upset, anger or avoidance), it says more about them than us. Equally, our responses say more about us than the others. This is particularly important when we hold others responsible or blame them for how we feel or when others blame us for how we made them feel.

These notes are concerned with maladaptive responses to uncomfortable situations, such as avoidance and anger.

When a task, situation or a person is experienced as uncomfortable, the first coping that kicks in is avoidance. In animals, the tendency to act defensively when exposed to threats is greater than the tendency to attack. The stress/threat is simply reduced by distancing away. This can be good coping as long as it enables us to assess the difficulty of the task ahead and is followed by a more active response. An active response will have an element of approach or confrontation, designed to inform us what steps to take to solve it.

Despite avoidance having meant to be a transitory response, it is extremely persistent through self reinforcing. Avoidance learning or conditioning can go on forever even if there is no longer a reason for it. Avoidance (if persistent) is the most harmful and as yet the most frequently used coping strategy. High avoidance will lead to remoteness from values, passions, likes and interests. Its costs are anxiety, depression, low self esteem and relationship difficulties. Depression and anxiety are conceptualised/understood as the non intended consequences of engaging with maladaptive coping.

Some forms of avoidance are obvious; others more subtle:

  • procrastination

  • denying

  • avoiding reality

  • worrying

  • avoiding feelings

  • avoiding confrontation

  • avoiding experiencing bodily symptoms

  • perfectionism

  • avoiding relationships

  • distraction

  • substitutes (drug use and alcohol)

  • lying

  • hiding away, withdrawal

  • seeking to live a busy life

  • sarcasm

  • habits/seeking familiarity

  • turning down opportunities

  • not taking things seriously

  • avoiding making decisions

  • avoiding making plans

  • analysing, judging, criticism,

  • avoiding certain/particular people

  • excessive preoccupation with an event, symptom, past failures and failures of others to meet our expectations.

Interestingly, anger as a coping strategy is expected to kick in when there is a threat of losing important values in life. It is an emergency charge that infuses us with power in powerless situations. Anger at this point is essential to survival. It shows that we still feel some kind of entitlement to our values, that we claim what is righteous for us. All feelings are allowed, only behaviours can be limited. Harmful expression of anger is one of them. Damaging exaggeration of anger can cease when the energy is channelled in sport, activity scheduling, making relationships, expressing feelings and claiming a sense of feeling good about self. For those who no longer feel anger, the energy is minimal, the values and desires are lost and they are more likely to cave in and give up. They have a lot longer to go before they can manage again.

The moral of these notes is that avoidance is meant to distance us from stressors as a temporary solution until an approach strategy is considered and acted upon. Anger as a feeling is helpful as it enables us to claim important values when we are at risk of losing them, yet the expression of anger needs limiting.

Veronica  Grigore

Article written by Veronica  Grigore  - Brighton

I am a cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT therapist) specialised in the treatment of depression and anxiety related problems. I have thousands of hours of clinical experience of working in NHS. I am also reaching out to people who do not have a disorder or suffer from a mental health problem, but... [read more]

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

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