Llewellyn and colleagues (2013) emphasize that there is an overall difference between people who are oriented to approach and those who are oriented to avoidance. The avoidance orientation has been associated with internalizing symptoms such as anxiety.
People who are oriented to approach are characterized by being more promotion-focused, meaning that they seek pleasurable emotions by promoting positive behaviors and cognitions concerned with achievement and advancement. In other words, these people make good things happen.
In contrast, people who are oriented to avoidance are characterized by being more prevention-focused, meaning that they seek pleasurable emotions by preventing maladaptive behaviours and cognitions concerned with security and responsibility. In other words, these people prevent bad things from happening.
In theory, approach orientation is linked to extroversion, satisfaction and inversely linked to affective symptoms such as nervousness, tension, and negative emotionality. Avoidance orientation, on the other hand, has been linked to neuroticism, negative emotionality, and anxiety symptoms such as worry, uneasiness and tension.
Research suggests that the above-mentioned orientations are related to different coping strategies. For example, promotion-focus is linked to more adaptive coping strategies (cognitive reappraisal), whereas prevention-focus is linked to less adaptive coping strategies (expressive suppression):
- Cognitive reappraisal: improves emotional states by reframing negative cognitions in a more positive way. For example, worrying circumstances are seen as stimulating challenges. People promote goals and behaviors that result in positive end states. People approach their problems instead of avoid them
- Expressive suppression: involves disengagement or avoidance from unpleasant and negative emotions. People seek pleasurable emotions by avoiding negative circumstances. People avoid (or suppress) their problems instead of approaching them
Often, deficits in coping strategies (i.e., inability to effectively regulate emotions) result in internalizing symptoms, including anxiety. Suppression reflects an inability to regulate emotions in an appropriate way, and indeed, it may exacerbate feelings of anxiety.
Therefore, it seems that there is a broad distinction between approach and avoidance orientations, and avoidance orientations are more often associated with mental health problems compared to approach orientations.
New research by Llewellyn and colleagues (2013) examined the relationship between the two orientations and anxiety. The research shows that promotion-focus is positively linked to reappraisal and negatively linked to suppression and anxiety.
Promotion-focused people were more likely to use reappraisal as a coping strategy instead of suppression, and this may be one one the reasons why they show lower levels of (trait) anxiety.
Prevention-focus, however, was not directly linked to anxiety symptoms. Interestingly, people who were prevention-focused were more likely to use suppression, but not less likely to use reappraisal.
This shows that prevention-focused people, who are at greater risk for internalizing symptoms, may also use adaptive reappraisal to decrease the unfortunate effects of suppression, making them less susceptible to anxiety overall. For this reason, coping strategies are not as static, as they might seem.
Adaptive coping strategies (e.g., reappraisal) may itself create positive life experiences, making opportunities to promote positive goals, which further reduces the risk for anxiety.
The authors sum up by saying that research has shown that people can successfully adopt new coping strategies, and this is a way of reducing internalizing symptoms, including anxiety.
Indeed, improvements in the ability to modify, accept, and tolerate negative emotions are strong and consistent predictors of psychological treatment success (Berking et al., 2008).
Taken together, a large body of evidence indicates that approach orientations are associated with less psychological distress and lower stress-related biological responses, whereas avoidance orientations have been related to poorer health and psychological outcomes (see for a review, Taylor & Stanton, 2007). You can also watch the TED Talk, How to make stress your friend, by Kelly McGonigal – to get to know more about how different approach orientations influence health outcomes.
A large body of evidence supports the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in the treatment of anxiety. CBT helps people reframe negative cognitions via a number of techniques.
However, anxiety is a clinical syndrome (axis 1 disorder) and other disorders (e.g., axis 2 disorders) may co-exist with it. So even though some treatments show great results overall, they might not work equally well for everyone as people are unique.