How Maladaptive Behaviors Worsen Social Anxiety Disorder

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If you have social anxiety, you may have inadvertently developed dysfunctional strategies to help you cope with unbearable feelings of anxiety, stress, and panic. You may use these strategies—known as maladaptive behaviors—because they relieve some of your anxiety in the moment.

They're considered maladaptive, however, because they don't deal with the root cause of your anxiety, the relief is only temporary, and they often lead to or exacerbate other issues.

There are many maladaptive behaviors, but avoidance is one of the most common among people with social anxiety disorder (SAD). Like all maladaptive behaviors, avoidance can keep you trapped in a cycle of anxiety.

Avoidance Behaviors

In order to avoid anxiety-provoking situations, you may engage in maladaptive coping strategies such as:

  • Canceling plans at the last minute because you think you'll humiliate yourself
  • Skipping social events you're interested in because you think you'll feel awkward
  • Turning down promotions at work that would require increased social interaction
  • Consuming alcohol, recreational drugs, or other substances to curb anxiety

Safety Behaviors

Alternatively, you may use safety behaviors (also known as partial avoidance behaviors) to prevent potential public humiliation. These behaviors are considered a more subtle form of avoidance because although you're not outright avoiding a situation, you're not fully engaging in it either.

The following are some examples of common safety behaviors in people with social anxiety:

  • Taking on roles/responsibilities in social situations (such as taking pictures or setting up equipment) so that you don't have to interact with others
  • Avoiding eye contact to avoid being noticed by others
  • Wearing neutral or excessive amounts of clothing to avoid attention
  • Minimizing your feelings to avoid confrontation or potential rejection

Consequences

While these behaviors may minimize anxiety in the moment, regularly avoiding situations can also cause more problems, such as:

  • Becoming more fearful of situations: Avoiding fearful situations can actually increase and reinforce your fears. Every time you avoid your fears, your brain learns that those situations are threats you need to be protected from.
  • Difficult social relationships: You may start avoiding certain friends or family members because you don't want to be "forced" to do things you don't want to do.
  • Poor social skills: Avoiding anxiety-provoking situations can prevent you from learning fundamental social skills needed to effectively communicate with other people.
  • Trouble being assertive: The more you avoid difficult conversations and social situations, the harder it will be to assert yourself and stand up for what you believe in ensuring that your needs go unheard.
  • Low employment achievement: Avoiding interpersonal relationships at work, not attending work conferences, and turning down job offers or promotions are all things that can prevent you from moving forward in your career.
  • Issues with substance use: People with anxiety disorders are more likely to misuse alcohol or medications than people who don't live with anxiety. Self-medicating to manage your anxiety can easily become a crutch that increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Eliminating Maladaptive Behaviors

While maladaptive behaviors may relieve your anxiety in the short-run, in the long-run, they worsen your social anxiety by reinforcing your fears.

Replacing these behaviors with safer, more effective coping mechanisms can help reduce anxiety even in the most challenging circumstances.

Adaptive behaviors are actions that help you change your response to make the situation more positive. These behaviors are essential to successfully managing the demands of daily life and engaging with others. They may include the following.

Social Skills

This might include things such as conversation skills and how to make new friends. Developing social skills will make it easier for you to cope with social interactions despite feeling anxiety.

Personal Responsibility

Taking personal responsibility means not leaning on others to support you unnecessarily. This might include developing routines in your daily life to be able to maintain employment and maintain a household, despite your anxiety.

Public Speaking Skills

If public speaking is a specific issue for you, adaptive skills might include taking a class to overcome your stage fright and developing your public speaking ability.

Emotional Regulation

Learning how to regulate emotions when they overwhelm you is a necessary step to developing adaptive skills to manage SAD.

A Word From Verywell

Many people with SAD lack appropriate adaptive behaviors, but that does not mean it is impossible to stop maladaptive actions. If you find that maladaptive behaviors are interfering with your ability to overcome your social anxiety, it may be helpful to meet with your family doctor or a mental health professional to discuss the issues you are experiencing.

Working with a therapist who specializes in SAD can help you to identify your maladaptive behaviors and triggers and then develop a strategy for addressing these issues.

If you've not received treatment for SAD, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication are two scientifically validated forms of treatment that may be helpful to you.

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  1. Piccirillo ML, Taylor Dryman M, Heimberg RG. Safety behaviors in adults with social anxiety: Review and future directions. Behav Ther. 2016;47(5):675-687. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2015.11.005

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