What Is Maladaptive Behavior? (2023)

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.

What Are Behavioral Disorders in Children?

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.

(Video) Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms

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.


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


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.

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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.


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 theNational Suicide Prevention Lifelineat988for 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 ourNational 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.

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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.


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.


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 lifeand 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.

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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.

Press Play for Advice On Regulating Your Emotions

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how to deal with your emotions in any circumstance that may come your way. Click below to listen now.

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What is an example of maladaptive behavior? ›

Avoidance, withdrawal, and passive aggression are examples of maladaptive behaviors. Once you recognize this pattern in your life, you can work toward finding alternative behaviors and start putting them into practice.

What triggers maladaptive Behaviour? ›

Maladaptive behavior can result when a person just does not see a path to their desired future. This can happen with any chronic illness or major lifestyle change. With maladaptive behavior, self-destructive actions are taken to avoid undesired situations. One of the most used maladaptive behaviors is avoidance.

Is anxiety a maladaptive behavior? ›

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).

What are maladaptive behaviors in children? ›

Problem behaviors (or maladaptive behaviors as they are referred to in this paper), characterized by disruptive, destructive, aggressive, or significantly repetitive behaviors, are prevalent in young children with ASD (7).

What are the maladaptive personality traits? ›

The PID-5 describes five maladaptive traits: Negative affectivity and Detachment (internalizing in nature), Antagonism and Disinhibition (externalizing in nature) and Psychoticism.

Is ADHD a maladaptive behavior? ›

It has been suggested that individuals who experience symptoms of ADHD develop maladaptive schemata of failure, impaired self-discipline, social isolation, and shame. These schemata may then contribute to impaired emotional well-being by increasing unhelpful responses to stressful life events.

Is maladaptive a mental illness? ›

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Maladaptive daydreaming is a mental health issue that causes a person to lose themselves in complex daydreams. These daydreams are usually a coping mechanism for other mental health conditions or circumstances.

How do you know if you have maladaptive? ›

Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming

Unconscious facial expressions, repetitive body movements, or talking or whispering that accompany daydreams. Daydreams that last for several minutes to hours. A strong or addictive desire to keep daydreaming. Trouble focusing and completing daily tasks due to daydreams.

How do you get rid of maladaptive behavior? ›

7 Techniques to Break Your Maladaptive Coping Patterns
  1. Cognitive restructuring. Replace negative thoughts with more healthy, positive ones that reduce the impact of real or imagined events. ...
  2. Distraction. ...
  3. Thought stopping. ...
  4. Self-compassion. ...
  5. Coping statements. ...
  6. Openness. ...
  7. Flow.
Oct 28, 2020

What is a synonym for maladaptive behavior? ›

Words related to maladaptive

maladjusted, nonadaptive, unfit, abnormal, defective, dysfunctional, flawed, unstable.

Can stress lead to maladaptive behavior? ›

Chronic stress exposure triggers maladaptive behavioral responses and can induce mood disorders, such as anxiety (de Kloet et al., 2005; Joëls and Baram, 2009; Lucassen et al., 2014).

Is PTSD a maladaptive behavior? ›

PTSD is a constellation of maladaptive changes that can occur after an extreme stressor, though it does not happen to everyone who is traumatized. When it occurs, it involves disturbing experiences, such as flashbacks to the trauma and potentially long-term alterations to patterns of thinking, behavior, and biology.

What are maladaptive coping styles? ›

Maladaptive coping generally increases stress and anxiety, with examples including self-harm, binge eating and substance abuse. The more maladaptive behavior, the more risk a patient faces in either sustaining or increasing the severity of their disorder.

What is the opposite of maladaptive behavior? ›

The literal definition of “maladaptive” is “not adjusting effectively to one's environment”. In other words, engaging in maladaptive behaviors is the opposite of adaptive, which refers to when one is adjusting to their environment in a healthy way.

Are Narcissists maladaptive? ›

Increasingly, studies have shown that grandiose narcissism can be adaptive or maladaptive.

What do behavior therapists see as the cause of maladaptive behaviors? ›

Trauma, domestic abuse, illness, or a significant life change are all examples that could trigger maladaptive behavior. There are many reasons why people adopt these behaviors, and they can be challenging to overcome.

Is autism a maladaptive behavior? ›

Maladaptive behavior is common in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, the factors that give rise to maladaptive behavior in this context are not well understood.

What personality types likely have ADHD? ›

The most common personality type among possible ADHDers was INFP (42.1%),followed by INFJ (14.0%) and ENFP (13.1%). There were no respondents with POSSIBLE ADHD that reported the following personality types: ISFJ, ESFJ. Figure 6: Personality Types among those who do not have ADHD.

What are the five personality traits for ADHD? ›

Irrespective of cognitive profile, participants with ADHD showed significantly higher Neuroticism and lower Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness than healthy controls.

What is it called when you make up scenarios in your head? ›

Confabulation happens when your brain creates scenarios that did not occur to make up for gaps in your memory. It can happen as a result of various memory disorders or an injury to the brain.

What is it called when you make up stories in your head and believing them? ›

Delusional disorder is a type of mental health condition in which a person can't tell what's real from what's imagined. There are many types, including persecutory, jealous and grandiose types. It's treatable with psychotherapy and medication.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a symptom of ADHD? ›

Maladaptive daydreaming is often associated with ADHD, with many people believing that it is a symptom of the condition, but this isn't entirely accurate. People with ADHD, specifically inattentive or combined ADHD, are more likely to daydream as a result of their mind wondering more, so to speak.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a trauma response? ›

Maladaptive daydreaming usually occurs as a coping mechanism in response to trauma, abuse or loneliness. Sufferers create a complex inner world which they escape to in times of distress by daydreaming for hours.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a spectrum? ›

People who are on the maladaptive daydreaming spectrum (yes there is a spectrum) create entire worlds and characters inside their minds. They can have original main characters or themselves but with a desired personality or persona they wish to have as the main character, in the narrative.

Is anxiety adaptive or maladaptive? ›

Normal anxiety is considered an adaptive response to the possible presence of danger, but is susceptible to dysregulation. Anxiety disorders are prevalent at high frequency in contemporary human societies, yet impose substantial disability upon their sufferers.

What is a simple word for maladaptive? ›

synonyms for maladaptive
  • maladjusted.
  • nonadaptive.
  • unfit.
  • abnormal.
  • defective.
  • dysfunctional.
  • flawed.
  • unstable.

Is maladaptive behavior deviant? ›

Maladaptive behaviors are unhealthy to the health and wellbeing of the individual. For example, behaviors such as chewing tobacco out of habit, drinking wine every day, or pulling all-nighters to deal with stress are not conducive to long-term health. They are considered maladaptive and deviant.

Is procrastination a maladaptive behavior? ›

The delay generally leads to negative outcomes, in terms of factors such as the procrastinator's performance or emotional wellbeing, and these negative outcomes can generally be expected in advance. As such, procrastination is considered to be a maladaptive behavior, rather than an adaptive.

What are some examples of maladaptive culture? ›

Some features of a culture may be maladaptive, such as fast food, pollution, nuclear waste and climate change.

What is an example of maladaptive anxiety? ›

Maladaptive coping generally increases stress and anxiety, with examples including self-harm, binge eating and substance abuse. The more maladaptive behavior, the more risk a patient faces in either sustaining or increasing the severity of their disorder.

What are some maladaptive coping skills? ›

Maladaptive coping techniques
  • Substance abuse. Consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol and taking legal and illegal drugs.
  • Rumination. ...
  • Emotional numbing. ...
  • Escape. ...
  • Intrusive thoughts. ...
  • Daydreaming. ...
  • Procrastination. ...
  • Self-harm and binge eating.
Oct 28, 2020

What is maladaptive behavior and how does it impact an individual? ›

Maladaptive behavior is behavior that interferes with an individual's ability to function in daily life or adjust to difficult situations. It significantly differs from what is expected for the person's developmental levels. These problem behaviors are often disruptive and dangerous.

What is maladaptive behavior in ABA? ›

For example, maladaptive behaviors targeted in ABA can include extreme tantrums, excessive and interfering self-stimulating behaviors (stimming), feeding limitations, aggression, self-injury, elopement (running away) and sleep interfering behaviors.

Which is a symptom of maladaptive coping? ›

In addition to rumination, other examples of maladaptive coping include emotional numbing, escape, and intrusive thoughts.

What mental illness is associated with procrastination? ›

Several studies have linked procrastination to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. According to the American Psychological Association, procrastination can also play a role in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and several other conditions.

Which personality types procrastinate the most? ›

Perceiving (P) personality types, particularly those who are also Intuitives (N), are often painted as the worst procrastinators.


1. What is Maladaptive Behaviour, Definition & Types
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3. Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Behaviors
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5. ABA Therapy: Reinforcement, Punishment, and Maladaptives
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