What Is Maladaptive Behavior?

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What Is Maladaptive Behavior?

Maladaptive behaviors are actions that prevent people from adapting, adjusting, or participating in different aspects of life. Such actions are intended to help relieve or avoid stress, but they are often disruptive and may contribute to increased distress, discomfort, and anxiety over time.

Many of us inadvertently develop dysfunctional strategies to help us cope with feelings of anxiety, stress, or panic. You may use these strategies because they relieve some discomfort in the moment.

Ultimately, however, maladaptive behaviors don't help you deal with the root cause of your stress. The relief that these behaviors provide is only temporary, and often leads to other issues or exacerbates existing ones.

This article covers the definition of maladaptive behaviors, types of maladaptive behaviors, and which mental health conditions can be related to the use of maladaptive behaviors. It also provides ways to overcome maladaptive behaviors and start using productive coping mechanisms instead.

Signs of Maladaptive Behavior

Maladaptive behavior can manifest in a wide variety of ways. These behavior patterns can often be destructive and can affect an physical health, mental health, relationships, and other important areas of functioning. Common signs of maladaptive behavior include:

  • Avoiding things that are stressful or unpleasant
  • Engaging in maladaptive daydreaming, which involves elaborate fantasies that replace real-life interactions
  • Hiding your true feelings rather than asserting opinions or emotions
  • Hurting yourself to cope with feelings of distress
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Using drugs or alcohol to manage anxiety or other emotions
  • Withdrawing from social situations that cause discomfort or anxiety

Causes of Maladaptive Behavior

Maladaptive behaviors can emerge for a number of different reasons, including the presence of mental health conditions. People use maladaptive behaviors regardless of whether they have a mental health condition. However, those with certain mental health conditions are likely to exhibit maladaptive behaviors.

Anxiety Disorders

People with anxiety disorders are likely to display maladaptive behaviors, particularly avoidance, in order to cope with their discomfort. Avoidance, specifically socially withdrawal, is one of the most common behaviors among people with social anxiety disorder (SAD). However, like all maladaptive behaviors, avoidance can keep you trapped in a cycle of anxiety.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

People with autism may display "externalizing behaviors," or self-injury, aggression, temper tantrums, and non-compliance. This may be more common in those who have less ability to communicate verbally.

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder may engage in avoidance to prevent triggering their symptoms. This is especially true for people with phobias.

Personality Disorders

Avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) is a condition in which people are extremely sensitive to criticism. They are often very shy and tend to withdraw socially as a result. One study found that reducing avoidant coping in people with borderline personality (BP) traits could improve symptoms of aggression.

Trauma

Survivors of a traumatic event may use avoidance, self-blame, and/or substance use while attempting to cope with disruptive memories related to the trauma.

Stressful life changes such as divorce, moving, job loss, and the death of a loved one may also contribute to maladaptive coping behaviors.

Types of Maladaptive Behavior

Maladaptive behaviors can look different based on the person who is engaging with them. However, many maladaptive behaviors can be grouped into these categories based on how they commonly manifest.

Avoidance Behaviors

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

  • Canceling plans at the last minute because they think they will humiliate themself
  • Skipping social events they are interested in because they think they'll feel awkward
  • Turning down a promotion at work because they don't believe in their abilities
  • Consuming alcohol, recreational drugs, or other substances to temporarily feel better

Avoidance behavior can also involve other tactics to avoid stress or discomfort. For instance, someone who is procrastinating on a homework assignment may think they're unmotivated. But deep down, they are struggling with perfectionism and don't believe they can complete the assignment well enough for their own standards.

Being passive-aggressive is also a form of avoidance behavior. Instead of saying what you really feel, you might just go along with everyone else's plan. In this case, you're avoiding any potential rejection. Maybe you fear being alone so you don't speak up when you really want to.

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.

Examples of common safety behaviors in people with social anxiety include:

  • 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

Anger

All of us get angry from time to time. But if you consistently find yourself burdened by anger that you don't know how to handle, you may have a pattern of using anger as a maladaptive coping mechanism.

You might feel the need to yell, throw things, or even hurt yourself or someone else. Your anger might feel uncontrollable at times. Even if you express your anger or frustration toward someone you blame, you still don't feel in control of the situation or any relief from your feelings.

It's important to find non-harmful ways of releasing your anger and frustration so you can then understand what's triggering you and deal with stress productively.

Self-Harm

One study found that participants who engaged in self-harm behavior (such as hitting themselves, burning themselves, or cutting themselves) were more likely to endorse avoidance as a coping mechanism compared to those who never self-harmed. Self-harm is also linked with an increased rate of suicide attempts and death by suicide.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Eating disorders are also linked with maladaptive behaviors. People with anorexia and bulimia, for instance, are found to have frequent negative emotional states and tend to ruminate. Eating-disordered behavior is often considered an attempt to cope with this psychological distress.

Impact of Maladaptive Behavior

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 that 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 can prevent you from moving forward in your career.
  • Issues with substance use: Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to manage uncomfortable feelings can easily become a crutch that increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Treatment for Maladaptive Behavior

If you find that maladaptive behaviors are interfering with your ability to overcome your social anxiety, it may be helpful to meet with a primary care doctor or a mental health professional to discuss the issues you are experiencing.

Working with a therapist who specializes in teaching adaptive coping mechanisms can help you to identify your maladaptive behaviors and triggers.

Together, you and a therapist can develop strategies for replacing your maladaptive behaviors with adaptive ones. Therapy and medication are two scientifically validated forms of treatment that may be helpful to you.

Psychotherapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach to treatment that focuses on changing the underlying thought patterns that contribute to maladaptive behaviors.

Working with a therapist, you'll learn to identify some of the cognitive distortions that lead to avoidance behaviors, anger, and safety behaviors. Then you'll be able to work on replacing such behaviors with more adaptive ones.

Medications

Medication can also be prescribed and is often used in conjunction with therapy. Commonly prescribed medications include antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers. These can help reduce feelings of anxiety, which may help you feel less likely to engage in maladaptive behaviors to manage feelings of distress.

Coping With Maladaptive Behaviors

While maladaptive behaviors may relieve anxiety in the short term, in the long term, they will likely worsen uncomfortable feelings.

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.

Social Skills

These might include conversational skills and how to make new friends. Developing social skills will make it easier for you to cope with social interactions despite feeling anxiety. This can be especially helpful for those with social anxiety.

Personal Responsibility

Taking personal responsibility means being accountable for yourself and your quality of life. This might include developing routines in your daily life to be able to maintain employment and maintain a household, despite anxiety.

Taking personal responsibility also means engaging in self-care. Eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep every night are important activities to regulate your physical and mental health.

Learning New Skills

We may be afraid of doing something because we're just not familiar enough with it. But you can become more comfortable with something by exposing yourself to it. For instance, if public speaking is a specific issue for you, adaptive skills might include taking a class to overcome stage fright and develop your public speaking ability.

Emotional Regulation

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

First, you might learn to label your emotions in order to understand them better. For instance, if you are staying home from a social event, ask yourself why. What's the feeling underneath your decision? If you are feeling tired and are tending to self-care by staying home, you can identify your decision as adaptive.

However, if you are staying home and withdrawing because you have anxiety about being around people, you can identify your decision to withdraw as a maladaptive coping mechanism. Then, you can ask yourself what else you can do to relieve your anxiety. Maybe it's some deep breathing or repeating a mantra. Or maybe you try a few minutes of meditation or exercise.

Another way of regulating your emotions is to adopt a positive attitude. While no one can or should be positive all of the time, adopting a positive attitude means that you're able to acknowledge a negative situation for what it is, but to remain optimistic in the face of challenges.

Of course, seeking help from a medical professional can be another helpful way to learn how to regulate your emotions.

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