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Avoidance techniques can reduce stress, balance life

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds that avoidance techniques can reduce stress

With more people working while going to school, it can be exceedingly difficult trying to find balance in life, let alone time off for sleep and personal relationships.

Indeed, achieving such balance can create conflicts that drive some people to the point of distraction – so much so that they end up avoiding the very activity that would resolve the conflict, such as staying late at work instead of spending that time with family.

As a result, additional conflicts are created in the family, resulting in dissatisfaction in the very area that caused the conflict in the first place.

Ironically, avoidance techniques can actually help, according to a recent study by Bonnie Cheng, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Julie McCarthy, an associate professor at the Rotman School and the University of Toronto Scarborough.

The researchers used a group of undergraduate students, who also worked outside of school and had family responsibilities, and surveyed them at two different points in time to measure the amount of conflict they were experiencing as a result of multiple responsibilities. They also wanted to study how differently the students coped with the stress of juggling competing activities, and how much satisfaction they derived from each.

What the researchers found was that students who used avoidance strategies, such as not dwelling on their problems, were more capable of managing conflicts between work, family and school. And they also experienced more satisfaction in life.

"Our intuitive notion of avoidance is that it's counter-productive, that it's running away from your problems," says Cheng. However, she also points out that there are different kinds of avoidance.

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"We found that while wishing for your problems to magically disappear is counterproductive,” she explained. “(But) the process of taking your mind off the problems at hand actually helped people manage multiple role responsibilities and increased their satisfaction."

Cheng says that the trick is not to allow avoidance to slip into escapism. In other words, it’s one thing to avoid problems to get your mind off them temporarily, but allowing yourself to escape from resolving the problem is to be avoided at all costs.

Using avoidance techniques wisely makes all the difference, according to Cheng, and the technique applies to any situation that involves juggling multiple roles and responsibilities – including activities like volunteering and coaching.

The important point for people to remember when managing multiple responsibilities is that it’s the occasional break you give your mind that helps, not escaping from your responsibilities completely.

One way to do this is to take advantage of any break rooms or lounges available at workplaces and schools by going there to relax and detach a bit, or otherwise socialize, listen to music, meditate or do whatever it is that works best for you.

According to Cheng, the study's findings point to strategies that can empower individuals to manage work, family and school responsibilities.

"That's not to devalue organizational initiatives," she says. "We see this as something people can do on their own, in tandem with organizational initiatives," she says.

SOURCE: University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management, "Relieve Stress With Avoidance Strategies When Trying To Balance Work/Life/School" (July 11, 2013); News Release (July 8, 2013).