If you’ve ever found yourself easing anxiety by turning on the television or eating a bowl of ice cream, chances are you’ve used avoidance to deal with difficult feelings.
“Avoidance is a coping strategy where you zig-zag around the thing that is making you uncomfortable,” says Alanna Fincke, meQ executive director of content and learning and a board-certified health coach.
Distractions can take many forms beyond bingeing on favorite shows or foods. Some people use alcohol or drugs to dull painful feelings. Others fill their schedules with activities or work excessively. Sometimes even virtuous activities, like caring for family members, can become a form of avoidance. “You can feel like the hero, taking care of your kids and your mom,” Fincke says, “but you haven’t done what you need to do for yourself.”
Avoidance as a practice may sound benign, but it’s not. “There’s a saying: What we resist, persists,” Fincke says. Your efforts to stay comfortable can prevent you from facing difficult feelings and dealing with the problems that underlie them. And your anxiety around the issue doesn’t go away, which can negatively impact your overall mental well-being.
What’s the solution? To stop using avoidance as a coping mechanism, you need to learn how to recognize and manage stressful feelings, Fincke says. She offers three evidence-based methods to get you started.
Method 1: Manage (Don’t Avoid) Stress
You can’t stop stress from happening. But one of the most powerful ways you can address it, says Fincke, is to practice “stress management,” rather than “stress avoidance.”
Known as active coping, stress management techniques address the problem directly and work by changing the way you think about the stressor. The meQ Trap it, Map it, Zap it technique helps you do just that. Fincke explains how it works.
Trap it: “Trap the stressful emotion when you’re starting to feel it, which often begins with physical sensations, such as tightness in the stomach or shoulders when you start to feel anxious, or feeling flushed when you’re angry,” she says. “Your body is your early warning system. Even before you’re thinking about it, you’re feeling it.”
Map it: Next, pinpoint the exact thought that triggered those sensations. For example, maybe it began when you learned about your child’s dismal history grade, or a project deadline at work that just got moved up, and you started thinking about the potential consequences.
Zap it: Often we overreact or react in ways that are habitual and not very accurate, such as, “This always happens and now everything is ruined.” Check the accuracy of the thought and then reframe it—rewrite it in your mind to be more accurate. For example: “Okay, this is hard right now, but I’ve done hard things before, and I’ll get through this, too.” “The goal,” Fincke says, “is to reframe the thought to serve you better and give you back control.”
Method 2: Timebox Your Worry
Instead of avoiding feelings or being in a constant state of concern, both of which take a heavy toll on your emotional well-being, Fincke suggests a different approach. Schedule specific times to worry. Intentionally scheduling dedicated time for worrying has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms.
Start by reserving 10 minutes at the beginning or end of the day. Essentially, you’ll be training your brain to release your worries at an established time, so choose a time that will work for you every day. Then set a timer and write freely about all your concerns. Nothing is off limits. List everything that comes to mind, so your brain learns that you have a trusted system for recording problems. If you’re not a writer, you can call your voicemail and let out your worries that way, Fincke suggests.
Letting fearful thoughts out of your mind and onto paper also allows you to check their accuracy and feel more in control of your worry, diminishing its damaging effects on your well-being. This, in turn, can free up your mind for other important activities.
Method 3: Take a Few Minutes to Meditate
A mindfulness meditation practice can help calm your mind, says Fincke, and allow you to better respond to negative emotions, rather than avoiding them. Neuroscience has shown that regular meditation helps our bodies turn off the system that puts us on alert (“fight or flight”) and turn on the system that helps us recover from stress.
“Many people worry that they won’t be able to clear their minds. They think, ‘My mind is too busy,’” Fincke says. “But mindful meditation is just about becoming aware of and noticing what you’re thinking—without judgment.”
A simple way to start is with a listening meditation, which you can practice in as little as a few minutes. Close your eyes (if possible), and then take a deep breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Now, shift your attention to the sounds around you. If thoughts start to enter your mind, it’s okay—gently push them away and refocus on the sounds. Don’t judge. Just listen for a minute.
“The goal of mindful meditation is to stop thoughts and emotions from controlling you,” Fincke says. “If you make a simple, daily practice of meditation, you will start to feel less anxious and more clear.”