Monday, February 12, 2018

Avoidance: Defense mechanisms by Sigmund Freud

When a perceived situation creates anxiety, one convenient option is sometimes to avoid it. Although avoidance can provide an escape from a particular event, it neglects to deal with the cause of the anxiety. For example, a person might know that they are due to give a stressful presentation to colleagues at work, and take a sick day in order to avoid giving it. Avoidance in this situation might be only a short term option, however, if the presentation is rescheduled to another day. Someone may also avoid thinking about something which causes anxiety, preferring to leave it unresolved instead of confronting it.


In avoidance, we simply find ways of avoiding having to face uncomfortable situations, things or activities. The discomfort, for example, may come from unconscious sexual or aggressive impulses.
Avoidance may include removing oneself physically from a situation. It may also involve finding ways not to discuss or even think about the topic in question.

Avoidance has two spectrums’. On one hand, it can be seen as a defense mechanism used to evade difficult circumstances from time to time, and then there is another level. It can be seen as a disorder. There is in fact an avoidance disorder that is characterized by convincing patterns of interpersonal reticence, feelings of insufficiency, intense sensitivity to negative assessment and evasion of social contact. People with this illness perceive themselves as being socially undesirable. It is there self-perception that often determines their social outcome. The fear of rejection, judgement and criticism often feeds this problem.

In evasion, we basically seek ways of getting around having to face challenging situations, things or happenings. The discomfort, for instance may come from unaware lustful or intense instincts.


I dislike another person at work. I avoid walking past their desk. When people talk about them, I say nothing.

Student does not like doing homework. Whenever the subject of school comes up with discussion with the parents, he changes the topic.

Avoidance Disorder symptoms

A person that suffers from avoidance disorder displays these symptoms.

1- Evades work related activities that entail prominent personal interaction, because of anxieties of rejection, judgement and criticism.

2- Is not willing to get involved with individuals unless they are guaranteed to be liked.

3- Demonstrates resistance starting personal connections because of the fear of being mocked, ashamed, or rejected due to intense low self-esteem.

4- They are consumed with being criticized or rejected in social encounters

5- Is limited in new social situations because of sensations of inadequacy.

6- Perceives self as socially unattractive, unappealing to anyone, or below others

7- This person is usually resistant to taking personal chances or to engage in any fresh activities because they may prove embarrassing


Avoidance is a simple way of coping by not having to cope. When feelings of discomfort appear, we find ways of not experiencing them.

According to the dynamic theory, avoidance is a major defense mechanism in phobias and anxiety. Procrastination is another form of avoidance where we put off to tomorrow those things that we can avoid today.

So what?

To get someone to face what they are avoiding, you may have to corner them or otherwise present them with a situation where they are unable to avoid the situation. If the discomfort is very strong, they may fight back hard, so be careful.

You can also use avoidance to persuade a person to do something. Give them a choice of two actions, one of which is something you know that they tend to avoid or which is likely to be less desirable. They will pick the path you want in order to avoid the less desirable way.

Beneficial forms of avoidance coping

Literature on coping often classifies coping strategies into two broad categories: approach/active coping and avoidance/passive coping. Approach coping includes behaviors that attempt to reduce stress by alleviating the problem directly, and avoidance coping includes behaviors 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, research has shown that some types of avoidance coping have beneficial outcomes. A study by Long and Haney found that both jogging and relaxation techniques were equally successful at lessening anxiety and increasing feelings of self-efficacy. Therefore, it seems that positive forms of passive coping such as exercise and meditation have qualitatively different outcomes from negative forms such as binge eating and drug use. These positive forms of passive coping may be particularly beneficial for alleviating stress when the individual does not currently have the resources to eliminate the problem directly, indicating the advantage of flexibility when engaging in coping behaviors.

Avoidance and Anxiety

Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape. 

Here are some examples related to anxiety disorders, but the principle applies to anxiety generally.
-  People with panic disorder engage in avoidance coping (including not leaving their home in some cases) in order to try to avoid panicky feelings. The more they try to avoid situations that might trigger panicky feelings, the more almost every situation begins to trigger panicky feelings.
- People with eating disorders put tremendous effort into avoiding feeling fat, but the more they do so, the more their lives are consumed by weight and shape concern.
A non-clinical example is when people who fear abandonment act needy (e.g., ask their partner "Do you promise you won't leave me?") and their reassurance seeking (aimed at reducing their fears) creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because their partner gets sick of the reassurance seeking.

Even rumination can be considered a type of avoidance coping. When people engage in rumination (overthinking) they are typically trying to think their way out of uncomfortable emotions. A common example is ruminating to try to escape feelings of uncertainty.

Sources and Additional Information:

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