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Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms: Definition, Behaviors, and Examples

what are maladaptive behaviors

Stress, trauma, and uncomfortable experiences are unfortunately a part of life. 75% of people will experience a traumatic event, and a third of US adults report their daily stress is overwhelming. To deal with all of the distressing events, thoughts, and emotions that come with living, our brains and bodies develop coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms are meant to help us manage distress and trauma healthily, but they don’t always do that. There are two types of coping mechanisms: adaptive and maladaptive. 

Maladaptive behaviors are actions we take with the goal of making our lives easier and healthier but instead inadvertently make the situation worse. This article will go through the difference between maladaptive and adaptive behavior, examples of maladaptive behavior, causes of maladaptive behavior, and how a professional licensed counselor can help.

What is maladaptive behavior?

Maladaptive behavior refers to patterns of behavior that are ineffective or counterproductive in meeting one's needs or goals. These behaviors can be damaging and impact various aspects of an individual's life, such as their physical and mental health, relationships, and overall functioning. Maladaptive behaviors can take different forms and interfere with a person's ability to adjust and participate in certain settings.

Maladaptive behaviors can arise from a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Cognitive distortions, such as black-and-white thinking and overgeneralization, can contribute to the development and persistence of maladaptive behaviors.

It is important to note that maladaptive behavior is distinct from adaptive behavior, which is behavior that helps a person achieve their goals and adapt to challenges in a way that maximizes positive outcomes.

Maladaptive vs Adaptive Behavior

Most behaviors can be split into two groups: maladaptive and adaptive. Although, it’s not always that black and white. What’s adaptive to some people may be maladaptive to others, and as our needs change, so too should our adaptive behaviors. 

In general though, adaptive behaviors help us move through negative emotions and experiences and come out stronger for it. Maladaptive behaviors may bring temporary relief in the moment, but expound upon distress and trauma, leading to further complications in the future.

Examples of Maladaptive Behavior

The shape maladaptive behavior takes will depend on you, your situation, and other maladaptive or adaptive behaviors you have. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Avoidance

Avoidance as a maladaptive behavior involves deliberately steering clear of situations, activities, or thoughts that trigger negative emotions or discomfort.  Avoiding hard things is one of the most common maladaptive behaviors and can be seen on both the large and small scale. For example, avoiding a friend after you had an argument because you don’t want to confront the confrontation is something we’ve all done at one time or another. However, like anyone who has done that can tell you, it does little to actually relinquish the feelings of stress, dread, and other distressing emotions. In fact, it often exacerbates it. When we avoid something we are constantly thinking about how to avoid it, what will happen when we get caught, and looking over our shoulder to make sure the consequences of our avoidance aren't catching up with us. 

Examples of avoidance as a maladaptive behavior include:

  • Avoiding a person to prevent a difficult confrontation from happening. 
  • Procrastinating on tasks to avoid potential failure
  • Suppressing emotions to sidestep facing a difficult situation
  • Avoiding reality by working more or engaging in leisure activities that take your mind off the issue. 

Note that not all of these behaviors are inherently maladaptive. Having hobbies that are a reprieve from everyday stress is an important healthy coping mechanism! It is when these behaviors interfere with your ability to do work, engage in life, and maintain relationships that they become maladaptive.

Withdrawal

Similar to avoidance, withdrawal is when you avoid situations that are distressing. However, withdrawal has a marked isolation factor. For example:

  • Playing video games instead of hanging out with friends. 
  • Claiming you’re sick or too busy to be around others. 
  • Removing yourself from social interactions quickly when you do go to them. 
  • Making no effort to make new friends or maintain friendships
  • Waiting for someone else to end a relationship 

These behaviors can lead to isolation, which is a major risk factor for many different types of mental health issues.

Self-Harm

Being able to control the pain you feel can be a temporary relief to many people going through a difficult time. Self-harm holds that temporary relief that defines many maladaptive behaviors. However, as the name suggests, this behavior is always harmful to the self—physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Examples of self-harm include:

  • Cutting, burning, or scratching skin
  • Pulling out hair 
  • Hitting yourself or banging your head

However, it can also look more subtle and may not have immediate physical consequences: 

  • Deliberately starving or binge eating
  • Refusing to sleep
  • Substance abuse
  • Purposefully drinking or eating things that are toxic
  • Over exercise, often to the point of feeling faint or collapse
  • Refusing to take medication

All of these behaviors can provide immediate relief from overwhelming distressing emotions, thoughts, and memories. However, the effect on the body and mind can be severe. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, help is out there. Contact one of these crisis text lines, or reach out to a therapist. Although self-harm is not always indicative of an underlying health issue, it is a serious concern that can be addressed and replaced with healthier, more adaptive behaviors. 

Talking to someone can help. Here is a list of 24/7 hotlines for self-harm:

If you are struggling with self-harm behavior, please know that there are people ready to listen and support you. Here is a list of hotlines you can reach out to for help:

  1. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    • Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
  2. Crisis Text Line
    • Text: Text "HOME" to 741741

Remember, reaching out for help is a courageous step toward healing. You are not alone, and there are people who care about your well-being.

Anger

Anger is a healthy, normal response to certain situations. It warns us when something is amiss or someone may want to hurt us and alerts us when our boundaries have been crossed. Anger alone is not maladaptive. However, when anger becomes the response to every situation, it can be maladaptive. People may use anger to avoid feeling their true emotions, push others away from them so they don't have to navigate stressful social relationships and avoid doing things that may be distressing to them. Also, when anger gets out of control and results in either you or someone else getting hurt, it is maladaptive.

Examples of anger as a maladaptive coping mechanism include:

  • Punching walls or throwing things
  • Getting violent toward others 
  • Storming off before a resolution can be found
  • Being angry so others stop talking to you
  • Using anger to prevent yourself from feeling your true emotions

Anger management therapy can help address the root cause of your anger. 

Passive Aggressive or Pettiness

Passive aggressiveness refers to a behavior pattern where negative feelings, such as anger or annoyance, are expressed indirectly rather than directly. Passive-aggressive behavior can manifest in various ways, making it challenging to identify at times. Some common examples of passive-aggressive behavior include:

  1. Procrastination: Consistently delaying tasks or responsibilities as a way to express resistance or avoid direct confrontation.
  2. Sullen or Sulky Behavior: Expressing displeasure or resentment indirectly through withdrawn or moody attitudes rather than openly addressing the issue.
  3. Backhanded Compliments: Offering a compliment with underlying sarcasm or insincerity, causing confusion or discomfort.
  4. Silent Treatment: Avoiding communication or providing minimal responses as a means of expressing anger or frustration.
  5. Intentional Forgetfulness: Purposefully "forgetting" to follow through on commitments or tasks as a subtle way to express resistance or to inconvenience others.
  6. Withholding Information: Refusing to share important details or updates as a way to assert control or provoke frustration in others.
  7. Sarcasm: Using sarcastic remarks or tone to express negative sentiments indirectly.
  8. Indirect Sabotage: Undermining the efforts of others in subtle ways, such as covertly causing issues or obstacles.

Instead of openly addressing their negative emotions, individuals engaging in passive aggressiveness may employ indirect methods to express their dissatisfaction or resistance. This can create a relational dynamic characterized by a lack of direct communication and a disconnect between words and actions.

If you're concerned about passive-aggressive behavior, it may be helpful to seek guidance from a mental health professional or therapist who can provide strategies to address and manage this behavior effectively.

Substance Use

Substance use, such as alcohol or drug abuse, can be a maladaptive behavior that individuals turn to as a way to cope with life's challenges. While it may initially provide temporary relief or escape, substance use ultimately exacerbates underlying issues and impairs overall well-being. Examples include:

  1. Escaping Emotional Pain: It’s common to use alcohol or drugs as a temporary means of numbing feelings or avoiding facing difficult emotions. 
  2. Intentional self-sabotage: If you’re scared of doing something, like a fear of failure, using drugs or alcohol to sabotage yourself is one way to avoid the guilt and disappointment. With drugs, you didn’t fail because you weren’t good enough, you failed because of the substance abuse. 
  3. Avoiding thinking about their problems: Substance abuse is a fast way to stop thinking. When you are under the influence, you’re not thinking about your problems. This makes it attractive to many people. 

While substance use may offer temporary relief, it ultimately serves as a maladaptive behavior that exacerbates underlying issues and impedes personal growth and well-being. Recognizing the negative impact of substance use is the first step towards seeking help and finding healthier coping strategies. With the support of professionals, individuals can develop effective tools to address their challenges, improve their mental health, and live fulfilled lives.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, consider reaching out to a mental health professional or seeking support from dedicated helplines to start the journey towards recovery.

Resources:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • National Helpline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Risky Behavior

Some people engage in risky behavior to cope with distressing thoughts, emotions, memories, and events. These behaviors provide a fast escape from reality, and the adrenaline or dopamine released from these activities dulls the pain and distress. Examples include:

  • Driving quickly or dangerously, on a car or motorcycle.
  • Gambling impulsively 
  • Engaging in dangerous activities without the necessary safety precautions (not using the right gear, doing so when you’re in a heightened emotional state, not telling people where you’re going, going at night or at a dangerous time of day)

Risky behavior can look different for everyone, depending on their skill level. Riding without a helmet, running late at night, or not telling friends where you’re going before you leave suddenly can all be maladaptive behaviors when they are destructive to your safety.

Maladaptive Daydreaming

Maladaptive daydreaming is a mental health phenomenon characterized by excessive, vivid, and immersive daydreaming that can interfere with daily functioning. People with maladaptive daydreaming may spend hours lost in intricate daydreams as a way to cope with emotional distress or trauma. These daydreams can be highly detailed, emotional, and may provide an escape from reality. The term "maladaptive" reflects the negative impact of this type of daydreaming on an individual's well-being and functioning. Maladaptive daydreaming can cause significant distress and impairment in various aspects of life, leading to difficulties in relationships, work, and overall daily functioning.

Individuals with maladaptive daydreaming often struggle to control the intensity and duration of their daydreams, and they may find it challenging to disengage from these immersive fantasies. This excessive daydreaming can be a way for individuals to avoid dealing with underlying psychological challenges, making it a maladaptive coping mechanism that hinders their ability to address and manage their emotions effectively.

It is essential for individuals experiencing maladaptive daydreaming to seek support from mental health professionals who can provide strategies to manage and cope with this condition. Therapeutic interventions and counseling can help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and address the underlying emotional distress that may be driving the excessive daydreaming behavior.

What causes maladaptive behavior?

Anybody can experience maladaptive behaviors. There is not a set list of causes for maladaptive behaviors because they can affect anyone. They are often learned from modeled behavior by other adults or peers. 

Although anyone can experience maladaptive behaviors, they are common with people with certain mental illnesses and neurodevelopmental conditions. Some of these include:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Autism spectrum disorder, a neurodevelopmental condition, may contribute to the development of maladaptive behaviors in some individuals. The challenges faced by individuals with ASD, such as difficulties with social communication and repetitive behaviors, can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms.
    • Example: An individual with ASD may engage in repetitive movements or intense fixations as a way to self-soothe or manage sensory overstimulation. While these behaviors may temporarily alleviate distress, they can become maladaptive if they interfere with daily functioning or well-being.
  • Traumatic Experiences: Trauma, whether it is related to a single event or ongoing stress, plays a significant role in triggering maladaptive behaviors. Traumatic experiences can disrupt normal coping mechanisms, leading individuals to adopt maladaptive strategies as a means of managing difficult emotions or overwhelming situations.
    • Example: Someone who has experienced a traumatic event, such as physical or emotional abuse, may develop maladaptive behaviors like self-harm or substance abuse as a temporary escape from their pain. These behaviors can provide a false sense of control but hinder the healing process.
  • Developmental Disorders: Certain developmental disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), can contribute to maladaptive behaviors. These disorders may impact self-regulation, impulse control, and social interactions, leading individuals to exhibit maladaptive coping strategies.
    • Example: A person with ADHD may struggle with impulsivity and have difficulty regulating their emotions. As a result, they may engage in impulsive and reckless behaviors as a way to cope with their underlying challenges, which can further disrupt their daily lives.
  • Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or panic disorder, can contribute to the development of maladaptive behaviors. Excessive worry, fear, and avoidance behaviors associated with anxiety can lead individuals to adopt maladaptive coping mechanisms to alleviate their anxiety symptoms temporarily.
    • Example: A person with social anxiety may develop maladaptive behaviors such as avoidance of social situations or excessive reassurance-seeking, which can hinder their ability to form meaningful relationships or engage in daily activities.

While certain factors like autism, trauma, developmental disorders, and anxiety may increase the risk of developing maladaptive behaviors, it is essential to remember that anyone can experience these disorders. Maladaptive behaviors are a result of complex interactions between individual vulnerabilities and life experiences. Seeking professional help is crucial for diagnosis, understanding the underlying causes, and developing effective coping strategies to address maladaptive behaviors and promote overall well-being.

If you or someone you know struggles with maladaptive behaviors, consider reaching out to mental health professionals who can provide support, guidance, and evidence-based interventions tailored to individual needs.

Remember, with the right support, individuals can learn healthier coping strategies and lead brighter, more fulfilling lives.

If you need further assistance or have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out for support.

When should I see a therapist?

Most people will develop maladaptive coping mechanisms at some point in their life. For example, it’s not uncommon for high school and college students to skip sleep, withdraw from social interactions, or use substances to cope with the stresses of life. Many of us come home from a long day at work and enjoy a drink to decompress. And it’s not uncommon to avoid an ex friend or partner you don’t want to talk to. Not all maladaptive behaviors need a therapist. 

If you’re wondering if you should see a therapist, ask yourself:

  1. Is my happiness and peace of mind being disrupted because of this behavior?
  2. Is my physical health suffering because of this behavior?
  3. Is this behavior encroaching on my ability to do work? 
  4. Is this behavior negatively affecting my relationships? 

If you answered yes to any one of these questions, therapy for maladaptive behaviors can help. Often, this therapy is shorter term and focuses on providing healthier coping mechanisms. If a greater mental health disorder is identified, therapy can switch to focus on addressing that root cause.

Therapy for maladaptive behavior

Seeking therapy for maladaptive behaviors is a crucial step toward understanding and overcoming the challenges that may be disrupting your well-being. At Lifebulb, we understand the importance of finding the right therapeutic approach to help you live your brightest life. Here are some effective therapy options that can support individuals dealing with maladaptive behaviors:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Cognitive behavioral therapy is a widely recognized and effective approach for addressing maladaptive behaviors. This therapy focuses on identifying negative thought patterns and behaviors and replacing them with healthier, more adaptive strategies. Through CBT, individuals can develop practical skills to manage emotions, challenge unhelpful beliefs, and make positive changes in their behavior.
    • How it helps: CBT equips individuals with practical tools to recognize and change maladaptive patterns, promoting a more balanced and positive mindset. By understanding the connections between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, individuals can learn to respond to challenges in healthier ways.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): Acceptance and commitment therapy is a mindfulness-based approach that encourages individuals to accept their thoughts and feelings while committing to actions aligning with their values. ACT focuses on developing psychological flexibility, enabling individuals to move past maladaptive behaviors and engage in meaningful, value-driven actions.
    • How it helps: By fostering acceptance and mindfulness, ACT helps individuals observe their thoughts and emotions without being overwhelmed by them. This allows them to make conscious choices and take committed actions that contribute to a fulfilling life.
  • Narrative Therapy: Narrative therapy revolves around the concept that individuals are not defined by maladaptive behaviors or problems. Instead, this therapy emphasizes the power of personal storytelling and helps individuals reframe their narratives, allowing them to separate themselves from their issues and view their experiences from a more empowering perspective.
    • How it helps: Narrative therapy enables individuals to reconstruct their self-narratives, emphasizing their strengths and resilience. By reshaping their stories, individuals can gain a new sense of agency, redefining their identities beyond their maladaptive behaviors.

At Lifebulb, we are committed to connecting individuals with highly educated, experienced, and compassionate therapists who specialize in these therapeutic modalities. Our therapists prioritize building a strong client-therapist relationship, helping individuals feel truly supported and understood as they navigate their healing journey.

Remember, the decision to seek therapy is a powerful step toward positive change, and with the right support, individuals can develop the skills and insights needed to overcome maladaptive behaviors and embrace a brighter, more fulfilling life.

If you're ready to explore therapy options or have any questions, our team is here to guide you every step of the way. You deserve compassionate support as you work towards a life filled with resilience, growth, and hope.

Talk to us

Frequently Asked Questions

Therapy for maladaptive behaviors is a form of professional support aimed at helping individuals understand and address harmful patterns of behavior that hinder their overall well-being. It involves working with a therapist who can provide guidance, tools, and strategies to help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and make positive changes in their lives.

 Therapy offers a safe and supportive environment where individuals can explore the underlying causes of their maladaptive behaviors. With the help of a skilled therapist, individuals can gain insights into their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and develop effective coping strategies. Therapy encourages personal growth, resilience, and the ability to lead a more fulfilling life.

There are various therapy approaches that have proven to be effective for addressing maladaptive behaviors. Some commonly used ones include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on understanding the connections between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It helps individuals identify and replace negative thought patterns and behaviors with more positive and adaptive ones.

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT incorporates mindfulness and values-driven actions to help individuals accept their thoughts and emotions while committing to behaviors that align with their values.

  • Narrative Therapy: Narrative therapy empowers individuals to reconstruct their personal narratives, helping them separate themselves from their maladaptive behaviors and embrace a more empowering perspective.

  • At Lifebulb, we believe in finding the right therapist-client match. We have highly educated, experienced, and passionate therapists who specialize in various therapeutic modalities. When choosing a therapist, consider their areas of expertise, approach to therapy, and whether their style feels compatible with your preferences and needs. Our team is dedicated to helping you find the best therapist for you—someone you feel comfortable talking to and building a strong therapeutic relationship with.

    Yes, therapy has been proven to be highly effective in addressing maladaptive behaviors. With the right therapeutic approach and a dedicated commitment to the therapeutic process, individuals can learn healthier coping strategies, gain insights into their behaviors, and make sustainable positive changes in their lives. Remember, everyone's journey is unique, and progress takes time, but with the support of a skilled therapist, improvement and recovery are possible.

    Getting started with therapy for maladaptive behaviors is as simple as reaching out to us at Lifebulb. You can book a therapy session with one of our highly qualified therapists who specialize in addressing maladaptive behaviors. Our compassionate team is ready to guide you through the process, answer any additional questions you may have, and support you on your journey towards living your brightest life.

    Remember, seeking help is a courageous step towards positive change, and we are here to provide the support you need.

    If you have any further questions, please reach out to us.

    Maladaptive behavior refers to actions, thoughts, or responses that are not effective or appropriate in a given situation. These behaviors often contribute to personal distress and hinder an individual's ability to function well in daily life. Maladaptive behaviors can manifest in various ways, such as avoidance, aggressive outbursts, substance abuse, self-harm, or excessive worrying.

     The term "maladaptive" describes something that is not adaptive or helpful in a given context. In the context of psychology, it refers to behaviors, thoughts, or coping mechanisms that are counterproductive, ineffective, or work against an individual's overall well-being.

     Adaptive behaviors are actions, thoughts, or coping strategies that are effective, appropriate, and beneficial for an individual's well-being and functioning. They help individuals navigate challenges, cope with stress, and maintain healthy relationships. In contrast, maladaptive behaviors are counterproductive, inefficient, and often detrimental to an individual's mental, emotional, or physical health. They can hinder personal growth, disrupt relationships, and prevent individuals from leading fulfilling lives.

    Maladaptive coping mechanisms are strategies or behaviors individuals use to handle or manage stress, difficulties, or overwhelming emotions. These coping mechanisms may provide temporary relief but are ultimately unhelpful or even harmful. Examples include excessive substance use, emotional eating, withdrawal from social interactions, self-harm, or avoiding problems instead of facing them directly.

     Absolutely. Therapy can be highly effective in addressing maladaptive behaviors. Skilled therapists provide a safe and supportive environment where individuals can explore the underlying causes of their behaviors, gain insights into their thoughts and emotions, and learn healthier coping strategies. With the right therapy approach and a strong client-therapist relationship, individuals can develop new skills, improve self-awareness, and make positive changes to overcome maladaptive behaviors. Therapy provides the tools and guidance needed to promote personal growth, resilience, and the ability to live a brighter, more fulfilling life.

    If you'd like to explore how therapy can help with maladaptive behaviors or have any further questions, our team at Lifebulb is here to support you on your journey. We believe in your ability to overcome these challenges and live your brightest life.

     Maladaptive behavior refers to actions, thoughts, or responses that are not effective or appropriate in a given situation. These behaviors often contribute to personal distress and hinder an individual's ability to function well in daily life. Maladaptive behaviors can manifest in various ways, such as avoidance, aggressive outbursts, substance abuse, self-harm, or excessive worrying.

     The term "maladaptive" describes something that is not adaptive or helpful in a given context. In the context of psychology, it refers to behaviors, thoughts, or coping mechanisms that are counterproductive, ineffective, or work against an individual's overall well-being.

     Adaptive behaviors are actions, thoughts, or coping strategies that are effective, appropriate, and beneficial for an individual's well-being and functioning. They help individuals navigate challenges, cope with stress, and maintain healthy relationships. In contrast, maladaptive behaviors are counterproductive, inefficient, and often detrimental to an individual's mental, emotional, or physical health. They can hinder personal growth, disrupt relationships, and prevent individuals from leading fulfilling lives.

     Maladaptive coping mechanisms are strategies or behaviors individuals use to handle or manage stress, difficulties, or overwhelming emotions. These coping mechanisms may provide temporary relief but are ultimately unhelpful or even harmful. Examples include excessive substance use, emotional eating, withdrawal from social interactions, self-harm, or avoiding problems instead of facing them directly.

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