What Is Maladaptive Coping
Maladaptive coping refers to coping strategies or behaviors that are ineffective, harmful, or counterproductive in dealing with stress, adversity, or difficult situations.
In contrast to adaptive coping strategies that help individuals effectively manage stress and promote well-being, maladaptive coping strategies can exacerbate stress and emotional distress, leading to negative outcomes such as mental health disorders, substance abuse, and physical health problems.
Adaptive vs. maladaptive coping
Adaptive coping refers to effective strategies that individuals use to manage and navigate challenging situations. These strategies help individuals reduce emotional distress, solve problems, and maintain their focus on achieving their goals. In contrast, maladaptive coping involves ineffective or harmful strategies that seem to resolve a problem in the short term but actually worsen the situation.
Here are some examples of maladaptive behavior in children1–4.
- Substance abuse
- Bottling up emotions
- Defying authority
- Disruptive behavior
- Risky sexual behavior
- Alcohol abuse
- Bulimic behavior
- Self-injurious behavior
- Maladaptive Daydreaming
- Avoidance behavior
- Risky or reckless behavior
- Obsessive behavior, such as compulsive hand-washing
Maladaptive coping mechanisms are ineffective ways of dealing with daily stress, and they often stem from adverse experiences in a child’s early years.
Infants are born with primitive self-regulation abilities, such as thumb-sucking or looking away. They must develop more advanced coping mechanisms to deal with their distress as they grow.
Children develop strong coping skills when mild and moderate stress is present, positive coping models are provided, and scaffolding is age-appropriate. Each of these ingredients is crucial to developing effective coping strategies5.
The absence of these ingredients puts children at risk for a maladptive response development.
As an example, individuals experiencing ongoing stress, such as maltreatment, and not having positive role models to emulate often resort to primitive coping techniques that are maladaptive.
Unfortunately, repeated use of these maladaptive strategies may lead to long-term problems with mental and physical health. Medicating oneself with substance is a maladaptive example.
Despite being primitive and ineffective in the long run, a maladaptive coping mechanism develops because it is adaptive in providing temporary relief from extreme stress.
When an individual leaves the harsh environment but cannot adopt new adaptive behaviors, it becomes maladaptive.
Maladaptive coping can have adverse effects on a person’s daily life.
Maladaptive practices are linked to various mental health issues.
For instance, children develop negative coping and thinking patterns that can lead to mental disorders such as depression and social anxiety disorders.
Maladaptive behavior such as binge eating and purging can result in eating disorders in some individuals.
Those who suffer adverse childhood experiences are also more prone to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)6.
Early adverse environments can negatively impact a person’s physical health.
An early stressful environment can affect physical health by dysregulating the body’s stress response system.
As a fight-flight-freeze reaction, the stress response system is activated during times of danger. But chronic activation due to prolonged uncontrollable stress damages one’s immune system and ability to regulate stress, leading to health conditions including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and insomnia7,8.
One’s physical health can also be directly affected by maladaptive behaviors like smoking, drug abuse, alcohol use, and self-harm.
A maladaptive stress response, such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa, can damage their physical health.
Many of the highly maladaptive coping techniques are debilitating. However, less serious maladaptive behavior can cause harm in one’s everyday life.
Aggression can lead to anti-social behavior. Addiction can lead to problems with employment, finances, and relationships, resulting in legal issues such as drug-related offenses.
Disassociation, which is losing touch with reality, can hinder one’s ability to perform daily tasks, maintain relationships, and hold down a job.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), resulting from maladaptive coping, is another disorder that can cripple one’s daily functioning9.
Also See: Coping Skills for Teens
How To Treat
Maladaptive behavior can have serious negative consequences for individuals and those around them. If left unaddressed, it can lead to a range of mental and physical health problems, as well as social and legal issues.
The good news is even after being developed in early childhood and strengthened over time, coping mechanisms can still be changed because the brain is malleable.
Developing new ways to cope with feelings of anxiety or overwhelming stress under difficult circumstances can prevent further damage to the body and mind10.
Changing maladaptive coping skills requires managing stress and using adaptive coping mechanisms in challenging circumstances. Here are some suggestions for achieving them11.
- Use deep breathing techniques
- Mindfulness practices such as meditation or yoga can improve emotional awareness to catch stress sensations early
- A healthy lifestyle, including enough sleep and a balanced diet
Adaptive Coping Strategies
Two types of coping strategies are based on whether one moves toward or away from the anxiety-producing situation.
Avoidance-oriented coping refers to strategies that avoid or withdraw from the problem. Avoidant coping tends to provide short-term relief.
Approach-oriented coping refers to strategies that seek information and use direct efforts to maintain control12.
Here are some accommodative coping skills that are approach-oriented to deal with stressful events.
- Learn problem-solving skills
- Cognitive reframing – reappraise stressful situations
- Write in a journal
- Distractions such as music, craft, hobby
- Get social support
Mental health professionals can provide individuals with various tools and strategies for managing stress and difficult emotions.
They provide a safe and non-judgmental space where you can process your difficult feelings and thoughts. They also help you identify faulty beliefs and negative patterns to develop healthy coping behaviors. Throughout the process, they provide support and guidance to stay motivated and on track.
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