Maladaptive Coping: Understanding and Overcoming Harmful Strategies

Thursday, November 16 2023

We all have different approaches to coping with stressful situations and major life changes. Some people may talk about their stressors with trusted friends or family members. Others might turn to physical exercise to release endorphins that help reduce stress.

However, some may deal with stressors using techniques that aren’t quite as helpful or beneficial, known as maladaptive coping strategies

Fortunately, you can learn more adaptive coping techniques that help you handle stressors more effectively. Below, you’ll learn how to recognize possible signs of maladaptive coping, what behaviors it might include, and how to replace them with adaptive coping strategies. 

What is maladaptive coping?

Maladaptive coping is when a person deals with stressors in an unhealthy way — like avoidance, getting angry, or picking up harmful habits — rather than seeking out healthy solutions that lead to more positive outcomes. 

These maladaptive coping mechanisms may help the person feel better in the moment. However, they may actually lead to more stress over time and affect many areas of a person’s daily life, like their interpersonal relationships, academic or job performance, and physical health.

Understandably, these habits can be hard to change. But the good news is that you can shift to more adaptive coping mechanisms with practice and support. 

Potential signs of using maladaptive coping skills 

You might not realize that your coping skills are maladaptive if you’re unsure what to look for. Below, we’ll examine some signs that may indicate you’re leaning on maladaptive coping skills. 

However, it’s important to note that while all these signs may point to maladaptive coping, they may also be signs of various other mental or physical health concerns. It’s best to seek help from a health professional to determine the cause and obtain the right support or resources. 

Excessively depending on others 

Social support can be wonderful — unless it’s excessive. Maladaptive coping can cause you to lean on others instead of building independence and self-reliance. Relying on others too much may strain your relationships, making friends or family members feel taken advantage of. Not only can this cause your social supports to feel resentful, but it also hinders personal growth. 

Limited social skills 

Aside from cultivating codependence, maladaptive coping strategies may also lead to difficulty socializing with others in general. Using unhealthy habits to cope with stress — like getting angry or being overly critical — can push people away and make it tough to build positive relationships. 

When you use maladaptive strategies to deal with problems, it can create misunderstandings or conflicts in your interactions with others. For example, if you avoid talking about your feelings, it can make it hard for people to understand you. As a result, they might think you're not interested or don't care — even if that couldn’t be further from the truth!

Lower professional or educational achievement 

When you use maladaptive coping strategies like procrastination or avoidance, it can have a major impact on your academic and professional performance. These avoidant behaviors cause you to stray from your goals and deadlines, tanking your productivity. 

Similarly, other maladaptive behaviors like maladaptive thinking can affect your self-esteem, motivation, and focus — which can impact your work quality. 

Poor physical health 

Unfortunately, using harmful coping strategies can also affect your physical health — especially when these behaviors are combined with chronic stress. You might have trouble getting enough sleep or experience other sleep disturbances, which could make you feel tired and unwell overall. Poor sleep is also linked with weakened immune systems, which increases your risk of getting sick. 

Certain maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance use or over- or under-eating, may also directly impact your physical health. 

Unrealistic standards or expectations 

Maladaptive coping can lead you to set unattainable goals or unrealistic expectations. For example, you may begin to expect way too much from yourself, feeling like you need to be the best at everything or that making mistakes is unacceptable. However, this can result in a lot of pressure and stress when things don’t go as planned, which may lead you into a cycle of self-doubt and low self-esteem.

9 examples of maladaptive coping strategies 

Maladaptive coping strategies come in many forms. While some people might mentally check out or overthink, others might turn to physical behaviors, such as self-harm or alcohol abuse. However, all of these strategies may potentially lead to negative physical and mental health outcomes. In the sections below, we’ll examine some of the most common examples of maladaptive coping behaviors. 

1. Substance abuse 

Some people drink alcohol or use drugs to temporarily feel better in times of high stress. In fact, research finds that maladaptive coping is linked to alcohol use and academic stress in college students. 

Substance use may have serious physical and mental health effects as people develop an addiction to alcohol or drugs. These addictions may also be harmful in other ways — such as causing problems in relationships or at work. 

2. Escape or avoidance 

Some people look for ways to escape from difficult situations. Instead of facing these issues head-on, they might avoid dealing with stressors however they can. 

This type of maladaptive behavior can lead to bigger problems in the future. For example, someone might avoid resolving a conflict that causes significant stress in their life. Over time, this conflict could become worse, leading to even greater stress and more serious physical or mental effects. 

3. Safety behaviors 

Safety behaviors are some people’s way of coping with stress, anxiety, or discomfort. These behaviors may make you feel better temporarily but might lead to long-term habits that could make them harder to overcome in the long run.

Not all safety behaviors are harmful. However, maladaptive safety behaviors don’t address the root of the stressor and may lead to increased or ongoing fear or anxiety. For example, someone with social anxiety may self-medicate with alcohol or harmful substances when they know they’re going into a social situation. 

This safety behavior may temporarily ease their social anxiety but could cause the individual to become increasingly reliant on those substances to handle such situations — rather than addressing the heart of the anxiety with more adaptive coping mechanisms. 

4. Disengagement 

Shutting down or “checking out” are forms of disengagement. This type of maladaptive coping occurs as a response to stress, numbing emotions by ignoring stressors instead of dealing with them. 

People who do this tend to shut off their emotions in these situations — refusing to engage them. While this might help ease stress in the moment, it doesn’t make the stressor go away or lead to a positive, constructive outcome. 

5. Impulsive or risky behaviors 

For some people, risk-taking is a way of coping with stress. These individuals might make rash decisions, such as making big purchases they can’t really afford. Others might look for thrill-seeking experiences or act impulsively, like deciding to go skydiving on a whim or gambling. 

Some of these risky or impulsive behaviors can lead to immediate physical danger. However, other behaviors might also have severe long-term damaging consequences, such as losing a career or interpersonal relationships. 

6. Self-harm 

Some people may choose to self-harm to release intense emotions or feel a sense of self-control during times of distress. Some individuals inflict self-injuries that cause immediate physical harm, such as cutting or burning. Others engage in binge eating or other behaviors that may harm their physical and mental well-being over time. For example, someone who binge eats to cope with stress might develop bulimia as a result. 

7. Intrusive thoughts 

When people have unresolved trauma or stress, they might experience intrusive thoughts. These thoughts are uncontrollable, unwanted, and may be highly disturbing. Some people experience these thoughts as a way to distract from their current stressors by thinking about something scary. However, this may only lead you to feel more stressed. 

8. Procrastination 

Putting off completing tasks is a common form of maladaptive coping. Procrastinating can help people feel short-term relief from stress. However, the cycle of avoiding or delaying tasks can lead to increased stress. 

For example, someone who procrastinates doing school assignments or work tasks might end up with a heavy load to handle in a much shorter time frame. Avoiding the stress of doing these tasks or assignments ahead of time results in more severe pressure and stress as deadlines approach.

9. Ruminating thoughts 

Going over a stressful situation or conversation again and again is an example of rumination. This leads to overthinking, such as dwelling on what they might have done differently to change the outcome. Unfortunately, rather than help resolve the issue, it can often make the problem feel even bigger. 

How to change maladaptive coping into adaptive coping strategies 

Recognizing your own maladaptive coping strategies is a great first step toward changing them! Here are a few ways to start actively working on replacing unhelpful coping skills with more adaptive alternatives. 

Seek out a therapist 

Professional guidance is an excellent resource to help shift maladaptive behaviors to more helpful coping strategies. A behavioral therapist can help you navigate the complexities of coping mechanisms through talk therapy, such as helping you learn emotion regulation and providing validation when needed. 

Seeking professional help is also important because so many signs of maladaptive coping can also be signs of other physical or mental concerns.

At SonderMind, we connect individuals with mental health professionals who can help them learn more adaptive coping strategies. Learn more about how SonderMind can help you find the right therapist, whether you prefer in-person or online therapy. 

Practice self-compassion

Being able to forgive yourself is an important part of the healing journey. Kindness, self-care, and self-compassion can help you achieve this. Be gentle with yourself as you focus on learning adaptive coping behaviors — remember, these behaviors won’t change overnight, so do your best to have patience and give yourself grace. 

Set goals and problem-solve 

When we set goals and think about what we want to achieve, it’s a more positive experience than dwelling on an issue or worrying about it. Once you set goals, you can start thinking about how to achieve them. 

This is where problem-solving skills come into play. You don’t need to solve a problem all at once. In fact, breaking it into smaller, more manageable chunks can make goals feel more attainable. As these smaller chunks are easier to find solutions for, you may feel more accomplished as you achieve each smaller goal — leading to a confidence boost and making you feel more capable.

Recognize what isn’t working and educate yourself 

Self-awareness is a powerful tool you can use to identify coping strategies that aren’t working. When you can look inward and realize that certain behaviors — like avoiding your problems or procrastinating until it’s too late — aren’t helping, it’s a sign that it’s time to shift gears and try something else. 

This is where educating yourself becomes so important. Once you identify those old, unhelpful behaviors, you can start learning about better coping mechanisms. This puts you in a good position to understand which coping strategies work best for you. 

Develop healthier routines to limit stressors 

Work on developing the following routines or habits to ease daily stress in your life:

  • Spend 15 minutes meditating each day.
  • Get about 30 minutes of daily physical activity or exercise. 
  • Set aside time to do an activity you love, such as reading or working on a hobby.
  • Keep your bedtime and wake-up times the same to build a good sleep routine.

SonderMind can help you connect with a therapist today 

Even if you’ve been using maladaptive coping for years, you can always switch to adaptive coping strategies with guidance and support. No matter what stressors you’re dealing with, remember that your well-being is a priority. 

Adaptive coping can help you focus on healing. You deserve the best care, and SonderMind can help you find it. Start the process of finding the right therapist with SonderMind’s help today.

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