Maladaptive behaviors are behaviors such as passive-aggressiveness, avoidance, or risky decision making, that prevent a person from addressing their problems in effective, constructive ways. These actions are utilized as a way to manage stress or anxiety, but often result in one failing to implement healthy change in their life.1
What Is Maladaptive Behavior?
Maladaptive behaviors result from a person learning to handle challenging situations and experiences in problematic ways. Although all maladaptive behaviors have this in common, the situations and experiences can vary considerably. Maladaptive behaviors occur in some or all of the environments that make up a person’s life–at home, at work, in social relationships, or in the community.
In order to understand maladaptive behaviors, it is important to note that every behavior has a purpose. This is otherwise known as the behavior’s “function.”2 When people engage in any behavior, they are trying to reach a certain goal. This goal may be trying to make something stop (like a painful emotion) or get something to start (like getting their spouse to do something they want). Maladaptive behaviors direct the person towards their goal, but in ways that end up making life more difficult.
Numerous different behaviors share the same function–reaching the same goal usually can be accomplished with a variety of approaches. What is expected with psychological healthy behaviors is that they help the person reach their desired outcome with as few problems as possible. This is the opposite of what happens with maladaptive behaviors.
Maladaptive vs Adaptive Behavior
Adaptive behaviors are ones that reach a goal (or, in other words, “serve the function”) in a way that maximizes the positive outcomes, while minimizing negative outcomes. They are the behaviors that help the person adapt to whatever challenges they face in ways that do not end up making life more difficult.
Examples of Maladaptive Behavior
Maladaptive behaviors can occur in a number of ways, depending on the individual and the reason behind the behavior.
One example of maladaptive behavior is avoidance behavior, which involves a person avoiding a challenging situation, rather than confronting and dealing with it effectively.4 Anxiety often plays a role here, as the avoidance serves as a way of getting the anxiety to stop.
Examples of avoidant behaviors include:
- Skipping out on class on test day due to test anxiety
- Avoiding eye contact to prevent having to interact with another person
- Leaving work early to avoid conflicts with the boss
- Going to bed early to avoid a marital disagreement
Seeing the relationship between anxiety and avoidance is clear when considering those with social anxiety.5 People with social anxiety often avoid situations where they have to be around large groups of people or unfamiliar people. What becomes maladaptive here is that individuals will often simply limit interactions with others to cope. Having anxiety is not really the main problem here–rather, avoiding people as a way of stopping the anxiety becomes the main problem.
Another example of maladaptive behavior is passive-aggressiveness. These are behaviors that people use when angry or upset, and are designed to cause problems for the individual(s) who upset them. They allow the person to hurt someone else, but not have to admit out loud–or even to themselves–that they are angry at the other person.6 Passive-aggression is maladaptive in nature, because it causes pain and problems for another person, but does not require someone to express their feelings effectively.
Unfortunately, when someone does not openly express their emotions to others, they are without a source for releasing their anger. Therefore, passive-aggressive behaviors don’t accomplish anything, as the person fails to do anything clear and direct with their anger.
Here are some examples of passive-aggressive behaviors:
- Saying you are fine, when you are really angry
- Complimenting someone’s hairstyle, but then saying they could use a trip to the salon
- Ignoring someone’s texts, but then saying you did not see them when they ask
- Telling someone they look like they put on weight, and then saying you were just kidding
Maladaptive behaviors can also be associated with unhealthy sexual tendencies.7
Sex for some can be challenging emotionally, and they may rely on maladaptive behaviors to deal with their complicated sexual feelings. For instance, those who struggle with changing sexual desires and sexuality as they age. The maladaptive nature of these behaviors is often noticeable, as they create more anxiety and/or relationship problems than the sexual feelings themselves. Examples of some clearly problematic sexual behaviors include pornography addiction and infidelity.
What Causes Maladaptive Behavior?
The causes of maladaptive behaviors vary significantly. They can include personal history, learned behaviors, problematic thinking patterns, and emotional dysregulation issues.
Difficulties with anxiety often cause maladaptive behaviors, too.8 If a person tends to become easily anxious in certain situations or almost all of the time, then they will often look for different ways to try and stop or lessen their symptoms. Because anxiety can be so challenging, the person may look for the quickest or easiest solution, rather than the most effective. Moreover, they may behave in ways that they know are maladaptive, but their anxiety may keep them from identifying a better approach.
If a person grows up in a household where anxiety is a problem, then they may learn ineffective ways of dealing with anxiety from caregivers. A child with parents who have anxiety themselves will very often adopt their parents’ same patterns.
Traumatic events can also result in maladaptive behaviors, as a person tries to either avoid or forget their trauma–for example, soldiers who experience combat, children of abusive households, among others. In many cases, victims of trauma develop these behaviors because they are trying to avoid something it is out of their power to avoid or alter. Moreover, trauma often is a source of maladaptive daydreaming.9
Possible causes of maladaptive behaviors include:
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Autistic people often develop maladaptive behaviors due to challenges with handling social situations.10
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD): BPD involves intense difficulties with emotional regulation, and often leads to maladaptive behaviors as the person tries to find ways of handling those emotions.
- Panic disorder: Individuals with panic disorder often develop maladaptive behaviors as they try to find ways of preventing their symptoms.
- Complex PTSD (CPTSD): This condition occurs when a person experiences multiple traumas. In turn, CPTSD can result in a person adopting maladaptive behaviors as they struggle to handle the combined impact of their traumatic experiences.
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Impacts of Maladaptive Behavior
Maladaptive behaviors can impact people’s lives in many different ways. They can be very troublesome, as they may help relieve problems in the short-term, but result in severe problems that build over time. Many may think they are handling things effectively, but then notice later difficulties with how others respond to their actions. It can be very difficult to reverse course and change approaches, even after it becomes clear that there are problems.
Impacts of maladaptive behaviors can include:
Impaired Social Skills
A person may experience impaired social skills over time, as they adopt behaviors that cause distrust or dislike from others. Just because a person relies on one way of handling a challenge, it does not mean others will be accepting or respond well.
Challenges With Assertiveness
Someone may have difficulties being assertive if they choose to engage in maladaptive behaviors, or withdrawal from dealing with challenging situations. Avoiding a problem is often a sure sign someone is scared of asserting themselves, and can result in their wants or needs being overlooked or ignored.
Anger Management Difficulties
Anger management problems can occur as a person may try to find ways of expressing their anger in ways that cause more problems than the anger itself. Verbal abuse and physical violence are two types of such anger management problems that are maladaptive behaviors.
Problems With Substance Use
Maladaptive behaviors often include relying on drugs and/or alcohol as a way of avoiding painful feelings. This can be particularly challenging, because substances have a temporary effect of lessening pain. However, any postponed discomfort starts right up again after the substance wears off.
Challenges at Work
Work performance issues occur when a person uses maladaptive behaviors for handling challenges that directly impact their job. Staying focused on one’s performance in the workplace can be difficult when dealing with personal challenges in ineffective ways.
Family conflicts ensue when family members become upset about a person’s maladaptive behaviors. If family members notice the problematic nature of these behaviors before the individual does, this can cause significant distress and upset within the dynamic. This being as the person utilizing the maladaptive behaviors may be entirely unaware of their impacts on their loved ones.
Physical Health Problems
Medical and physical problems may also occur, as behavioral choices are often related directly to high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, sleep problems, liver disease, physical pain, and stomach upset.
How to Recognize Maladaptive Behaviors that Need Treatment
Maladaptive behaviors are often difficult to recognize. They may cause problems, but largely because they start out as a way of dealing with challenges in less than helpful ways. Because of this, their problematic impact may not be noticeable until the difficulties pile up. This is why it is so important for a person to take note if their behavioral choices are causing more problems than they solve.
Here are some signs that behaviors may be maladaptive:
- Problems with increased anxiety or depression
- Frequent criticism of the behaviors from friends and family
- Work problems
- Difficulties relaxing and/or sleeping
- Legal problems (for example, DUIs or police involvement for violence)
- Marital arguments
- Relationships ending abruptly
- School problems
- Thoughts of self-harm or harm to others
Treatment for Maladaptive Behavior
Maladaptive behaviors are typically treated with some form of psychotherapy. Psychotherapists treat maladaptive behaviors by first helping the person identify what challenges they are trying to address with the behaviors, what the sources of those challenges are, and how these challenges can be addressed differently.
Therapy is the primary approach, but if there is an underlying anxiety disorder or severe mood disorder influencing a person’s behaviors, a psychiatrist might also be involved to prescribe medication. Recent research shows that there may be physiological factors that can lead to individuals being more prone to develop maladaptive behaviors.(F11) It is conceivable that if future studies support this view, there may be medications developed that specifically target maladaptive behaviors.
Therapy options for maladaptive behaviors include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): psychotherapy where the therapist helps a person recognize the functions or problematic thinking and behavior patterns.(F12) This is followed by the therapist working with the person to find alternative approaches that serve the same functions in more effective ways.
- Applied behavior analysis (ABA): ABA can be used to help a person learn and use better behavioral skills for communicating and socializing. This approach is most often used for treating maladaptive behaviors in individuals with intellectual or developmental difficulties.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy: This therapy method focuses on helping a person learn more effective social and relationship behaviors. Interpersonal therapy focuses on relationship issues, and addresses how maladaptive behaviors impact a person’s interpersonal relationships.
- Addiction counseling: Addiction counseling addresses maladaptive behaviors related to addictive behaviors. This can include addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, and/or food.
How to Cope With Maladaptive Behaviors
While therapy can be incredibly helpful when addressing maladaptive behaviors, adopting healthy coping mechanisms in times of stress or discomfort can also be beneficial.
Here are some tips for coping with maladaptive behaviors:
- Try journaling: Use journaling to try and identify the functions of maladaptive behaviors. 13
Keeping track of problem behaviors, when those behaviors occur, what was occurring just before the behavior occurred, what the person was thinking when the behavior occurred and what happened after can be very helpful for identify what the behavior accomplishes. This can be very helpful for identifying alternative approaches that can help lessen the maladaptive behaviors.
- Challenge negative thinking: Find ways of challenging irrationally negative thinking.14
This type of thinking often contributes to maladaptive behaviors as the person believes that the behaviors are the only way of addressing a problem or that any alternative must be perfectly effective if it is going to replace the maladaptive behavior. Looking at problems in more rational ways can help lessen the need to hold onto maladaptive behaviors.
- Learn emotional regulation: Learn how to regulate emotions. Finding new ways of handling anger, anxiety and/or depression is often a necessary step for replacing maladaptive behaviors.
- Try mindfulness: Practice mindfulness as a way of stopping maladaptive behaviors that are meant to avoid or terminate painful emotions. Often just allowing those emotions to be present and not trying to stop them is a helpful way of reversing maladaptive behaviors.
- Get out and socialize: Socialize as a way of trying out different behaviors to replace maladaptive ones. Being around other people can be a useful way of seeing what behaviors others use to handle challenges and see how they respond to different types of behaviors.
When considering maladaptive behaviors, it is important to realize that every behavior, even the most problematic ones, occur for some sort of reason. People do not behave randomly, and are always trying to accomplish something. Recognizing this can help provide an approach to addressing maladaptive behaviors. Solving the problem of a person’s actions involves finding alternative, healthy ways of accomplishing the same goals. It is not an easy process, but looking at maladaptive behaviors this way provides some needed direction.