How Do Maladaptive Behaviors Worsen Social Anxiety Disorder?

Common Maladaptive Behaviors Keep You From Treating Social Anxiety

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The term "maladaptive behavior" is used to describe types of behaviors that inhibit your ability to adjust to situations. Often seen in those with social anxiety disorder (SAD), maladaptive behaviors can be used to reduce anxiety and fear in the moment. You might inadvertently develop these habits to cope in social and performance situations because it feels like they are helping you manage your anxiety.

Unfortunately, however, they can worsen your anxiety in the long run because they stop you from doing things that are actually adaptive. In addition, they might reinforce the problem with social anxiety that you are trying to improve. 

Common Maladaptive Behaviors

Maladaptive behaviors can range from passive communication to substance abuse. Below is a list of some of the things you might find yourself doing to manage anxiety in situations, albeit not in a helpful way:

1. Passive Communication

Because you prefer to avoid confrontation, you may minimize your feelings or choose not to discuss things that are bothering you.

This can worsen your social anxiety because without making your feelings known, your needs can go ignored. In this way, passive communication can leave one feeling resentful and reinforces social anxiety.

2. Avoidance

If you have social anxiety, you may try to avoid triggering situations by engaging in the following behaviors:

  • refusing to give a speech in public
  • turning down event invitations
  • backing out of engagements at the last minute
  • not taking classes that involve public speaking
  • eating alone or limiting what you eat in front of others
  • not asking questions in class
  • turning down promotions at work

While avoiding these situations may prevent you from having anxiety in the moment, avoiding them regularly can worsen social anxiety in the following ways:

  • limiting your social circle
  • making you feel more lonely
  • contributing to low self-esteem related to your lack of social abilities and skills
  • restricting advancement in your career
  • affecting your grades
  • placing restrictions on where you go and what you do

You may also engage in the following safety behaviors (also known as partial avoidance behaviors) to alleviate feelings of anxiety and avoid potential embarrassment in social situations:

  • speaking very softly
  • avoiding eye contact
  • crossing your arms or fiddling with an object
  • standing far away from people
  • not speaking
  • holding your body in a rigid way

Engaging in partial avoidance stops you from being fully present and engaged in the moment, which keeps you at a distance from other people. What you think is keeping you safe is actually keeping you locked in a cycle of anxiety.

3. Anger

Some people with social anxiety may become angry. They may be frustrated with themselves or upset at others for forcing them to engage in social situations or for ignoring their needs. These feelings can become pent up and finally expressed as anger.

You might vent your anger in unhealthy ways or lash out at loved ones, which makes you feel guilty afterward and actually makes your social anxiety worse. While not everyone with social anxiety will feel anger, for those who do, it can be a significant problem.

4. Substance Abuse

If you live with social anxiety and must do something that scares you, such as giving a presentation at work, you may be tempted to treat your anxiety with alcohol or drugs to calm your nerves.

People with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to abuse alcohol or medications than other people. While using these substances may provide you with some relief, it is short-lived and can be very harmful. It can become a crutch you have to rely on, raising the potential to become addicted. 

Eliminating Maladaptive Behaviors

Rather than using maladaptive behaviors, healthcare providers stress the importance of developing adaptive behaviors.

Adaptive behaviors are actions that allow you to 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 social anxiety.

Many with social anxiety lack appropriate adaptive behaviors; however, that does not mean it is impossible to stop maladaptive actions.

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

A Word From Verywell

If you find that maladaptive behaviors are interfering with your ability to overcome social anxiety disorder, it may be helpful to meet with your family doctor or a mental health professional to discuss the issues you are experiencing. 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. Kushner MG, Specker SM, Maurer E. Substance Use Disorders in Patients With Anxiety Disorders. Psychiatr Times. 2011;28(9):38-42.

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