Maladaptive Behavior and Anxiety: What’s the Connection?

Maladaptive Behavior and Anxiety: What's the Connection? - The Meadows Malibu

By Beau Black

Identifying maladaptive behaviors is only half the battle. Learning how to replace them with healthy responses is the rest.

When we encounter obstacles or major turning points in life, we always have choices as to how we will respond. Those responses fall into two broad categories: adaptive behavior and maladaptive behavior. Adaptive behaviors help us respond to changes, challenges, and setbacks in healthy ways. Maladaptive behaviors, conversely, are dysfunctional coping mechanisms we develop to evade and protect ourselves from life’s hardships. According to VeryWellMind, while these unhealthy behaviors may offer temporary relief from anxiety and other conditions, they may actually create more long-term problems.

Life changes, illnesses, and traumatic events can trigger anxiety that can be difficult to manage, opening up the potential for anxiety disorders. Here at The Meadows Malibu, we help many patients who are struggling in this area. Symptoms include excessive worrying and intense, sustained anxiousness and nervousness that extends beyond the typical kind of worry that is appropriate in life situations. This type of anxiety can interfere with day-to-day functioning and leave a person feeling consumed by fear and drained of energy.

What Is Maladaptive Behavior? 

Rather than help you cope successfully with anxiety or other mental health issues, maladaptive behaviors keep you stuck in them — or make conditions worse. To better understand these patterns, Healthline offers the following examples as maladaptive coping strategies: avoidance, withdrawal, passive-aggressiveness, self-harm, anger, substance use, maladaptive daydreaming, and acting out sexually. Here’s a brief look at each:

1. Avoidance and withdrawal 

Though disengaging from unpleasantness can at times be one productive way of dealing with a situation, choosing this solution regularly can be harmful. Similarly, it’s ok to unplug and veg out in front of the TV on occasion (or play video games, lose yourself in a book, etc.), but doing so often — instead of being engaged in the world — can lead to an unhealthy lack of interaction and support.

2. Daydreaming

We all zone out in our heads from time to time, but letting a maladaptive thought turn into a full-on parade can become a problem. If we’re diving into fantasy for hours and hours to the point where it keeps us from participating in life around us, like avoidance and withdrawal, it can hinder and isolate us.

3. Anger

This is a normal, healthy response in some situations, and when channeled effectively, anger can be useful. But when it is marked by habitual and uncontrolled verbal outbursts and physical acting out, it is counterproductive. In addition to driving others away, it can fail to resolve the issues that prompted it, often leaving circumstances worse than before.

4. Passive-aggressiveness

The flip side of an angry outburst is passive-aggressiveness — saying everything is “fine” when it isn’t and then taking out your emotions on someone or something else later. This attempt to make the other person somehow pay for a perceived or real transgression while appearing innocent is a maladaptive coping mechanism that can be a relationship killer.

Rather than help you cope successfully with anxiety or other mental health issues, maladaptive behaviors keep you stuck in them — or make conditions worse.

5. Self-harm

This can present itself in a number of ways, but the most common are cutting or hitting yourself to inflict pain or using substances to cause deliberate harm to your body. 

6. Substance use

A more common maladaptive strategy for managing anxiety, depression, or stress is substance use or abuse. This involves alcohol, illicit drugs, and misuse of prescription drugs. Studies have shown that people with anxiety disorders are up to three times more likely to have alcohol or another substance abuse disorder. Additionally, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that, of the 20.3 million adults with substance use disorders, nearly 38% also have at least one mental illness. And because the negative effects of mental illness are far-reaching, including its treatment alongside addiction treatment is crucial.

7. Acting out sexually

Finally, engaging in a variety of high-risk sexual behaviors to numb or distract yourself is another manifestation of maladaptive behavior. This may include unprotected, anonymous, or otherwise dangerous sex acts that may lead to harming yourself or others.

What Comes Next?

Identifying maladaptive behaviors is only half the battle. Learning how to replace them with healthy responses is the rest. One step is to have a plan. Another is to seek help when needed. 

What Is Maladaptive Behavior? - The Meadows Malibu

We generally know many of the day-to-day stresses we face — and that allows us to plan ahead. Putting the brakes on anger by seeking other strategies or removing ourselves when we sense we’re about to blow can help avoid outbursts. And forcing ourselves to articulate clearly when someone has hurt us short-circuits the need to slam doors while claiming everything is “fine!”

When we face stressors that trigger anxiety or an unhealthy tendency to isolate, we can instead resolve ourselves to engage with people and environments we know are good for us. Seeking appropriate intimacy, whether among friends or romantically, can help keep us grounded and balanced. Of course, that may be easier said than done if past relationships are the source of our maladaptive anxiety. 

Perhaps the most adaptive of approaches is to seek treatment for the underlying causes of anxiety. The short-term investment of time and finances in therapy can pay off in long-term freedom and mental wellness and teach us the skills we need to adapt to the changes, challenges, and hurts that life inevitably throws our way.