The relative efficacy of avoidant and nonavoidant coping strategies: a meta-analysis

Health Psychol. 1985;4(3):249-88. doi: 10.1037//0278-6133.4.3.249.


A casual review of the research literature on coping strategies suggests that strategies involving avoidant tactics are effective in reducing pain, stress, and anxiety in some cases, whereas nonavoidant strategies (called here attention), appear to be more effective in others. This article reports the results of a series of meta-analyses to ascertain whether there are systematic patterns in the empirical literature that describe when attention strategies are more or less effective than avoidant strategies. In particular, we consider the role of different kinds of attentional sets and also the role of time--whether some kinds of strategies work best in the early phases of the stress experience, and others are more efficacious in later phases of the stress experience. Results of an overall analysis of studies providing tests of attention versus avoidance indicated little evidence for one strategy's superiority. However, supplementary analyses, motivated by theoretical reasons, suggest there are boundary conditions that define the relative efficacy of a specific strategy. Overall, avoidance was associated with more positive adaptation in the short-run. However, attention was superior to avoidance if the former involved a focus on sensory schemata rather than emotional processing. If attention involved an emotional interpretational set or no explicit set, then it was associated with more negative outcomes than avoidance. In terms of long-term outcomes, avoidance indicates better outcomes initially, but with time, attention was associated with more positive outcomes. A final set of analyses found that both attention and avoidance facilitate adaptation as compared with no instruction controls. The meta-analyses suggest the important role of interpretational set and whether one looks at the immediate or at the long-term effects of coping. Limitations of the analyses and directions for future research are discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Arousal
  • Attention
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Denial, Psychological
  • Humans
  • Problem Solving
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / psychology
  • Regression, Psychology