What Is… Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Coping

examples of adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is adaptive vs. maladaptive coping. I use these terms a fair bit, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually explained them, so I figured it was time to remedy that.

One way of characterizing coping strategies is as being healthy or unhealthy. However, there’s a hefty helping of judginess that goes with that characterization. People use coping mechanisms because they give some form of relief, and different kinds of coping mechanisms may accomplish mostly positive or mostly negative things depending on the context in which they’re used.

Another way to characterize coping strategies is as adaptive or maladaptive. Adaptive strategies make things easier in the moment, but also easier in the long run. Maladaptive coping strategies make things easier in the moment, but only make things harder in the long run. Maladaptive strategies turn away from problems, while adaptive strategies face them and deal with them. Whether a given behaviour serves as an adaptive or maladaptive coping strategy depends on the context.

Adaptive coping

According to a paper in Cogent Psychology, adaptive coping “characterizes a person who deals with stressors through personal growth, optimism, solution-focused actions, creativity, and flexibility.”

There are multiple different coping approaches that we may be able to use:

  • active: problem-solving, reaching out for support
  • accommodative: changing our expectations to better fit the situation (there’s more on that in the post Is it Better to Have High or Low Expectations?)
  • emotional: regulating stress-related emotions
  • behavioural: taking actions to reduce stress, such as using breathing techniques
  • cognitive: changing the way we think about the stressor

Personality traits can influence the type of coping strategies people are likely to use, and extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness have been linked to adaptive coping. People with postsecondary education tend to use adaptive strategies more consistently than those without, which I found a bit surprising; I wouldn’t have expected those things would be related.

Maladaptive coping

Maladaptive coping strategies may be more likely to be in the toolbox if there are overwhelming stressors or trauma or if there was maltreatment/neglect during childhood or exposure to emotional invalidation. These strategies provide temporary relief, but they don’t address the problem. The Cogent Psychology paper stated that “A person scoring highly on maladaptive coping could be characterized as engaging in denial, self-criticism, and passivity.”

Examples of maladaptive coping approaches include:

  • substance use
  • rumination
  • physical escape (although deliberate removal from a situation may also be adaptive)
  • mental escape, e.g. through dissociation, numbing, or excessive daydreaming; however, dissociation can also serve an important survival function in the midst of traumatic events
  • procrastination
  • self-injury
  • binge eating
  • risk-taking behaviour
  • blame, self-blame, and self-criticism
  • safety behaviours (behaviours that temporarily relieve anxiety, but actually reinforce the perception that the stressor is a threat)
  • avoidance

Maladaptive strategies in schema therapy

Schema therapy divides maladaptive coping strategies into three groups:

  • overcompensation: aggression, dominance, recognition/status-seeking, manipulation/exploitation, passive aggressiveness, obsessionality
  • surrender: compliance, dependence
  • avoidance: social withdrawal, compulsive stimulation-seeking, addictive self-soothing, mental withdrawal

Patterns over time

We probably all use maladaptive coping strategies at least some of the time, which isn’t a big deal as long as adaptive strategies get incorporated into the mix too

Balance is important in determining whether something is adaptive or maladaptive. Taking breaks for self-care is adaptive, but if that breaking gets to the point of avoidance, whether it’s mental or physical, then that can be maladaptive and reinforce anxiety and other difficult emotions related to whatever it is that we’re avoiding.

The personality trait neuroticism predisposes people to use maladaptive coping techniques. The use of maladaptive strategies tends to decrease with increasing age; I wonder if that has any connection with the tendency for borderline personality disorder symptoms to settle down somewhat with age.

What about distraction?

Distraction is a bit of a chameleon as a coping strategy, as it can go either way. Distraction can be a form of avoidance. However, distraction can be adaptive if it’s paired with acceptance that something uncomfortable is happening that you can’t stop from happening. If there’s nothing that you can do to solve or reduce the problem, distraction can be sanity-maintaining.

Is it always easy to tell if you’re using distraction in an adaptive or maladaptive way? Nope. And in the longer term, distraction may not do a great deal to help you to become more skillful overall. Still, sometimes it’s what’s effective in the moment, and that matters.

Expanding the toolbox

Trying to remove maladaptive coping strategies from the toolbox doesn’t work very well if you’re not adding in more effective adaptive tools, because you still need to be able to have something that works in the short term. As new tools are added and skills are gained in using them, maladaptive strategies become less and less necessary. If a strategy is available that provides both short and longer-term relief, that’s probably going to be more appealing than a short-term strategy that makes things worse in the longer term. It’s also important to have adaptive strategies that provide comparable levels of short-term relief with maladaptive strategies, or else the maladaptive ones will continue to have a strong appeal.

Tools also require practice. If you use a hammer once a year, the next time you try to hammer a nail, you’re probably going to suck at it, and you may well hammer your thumb in the process. A tool doesn’t do any good if it’s just for decoration and the instruction manual goes flying out the window as soon as there’s a little bit of stress. A favourite talking point for a counsellor I used to work with was the idea that you need to practice any skill you’re working on when things are going reasonably okay, or else there’s no way it’s going to be available to you when things start to get tough. In the case of self-harm, aka non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), one has to get pretty darn skilled at new adaptive tools to get close to the level of short-term relief that self-harm can provide.


Cognitive behavioural therapy can help to add new tools to the toolbox, but it can also help you to see that the way you’ve been using the hammer actually makes it more likely that you’ll whack your thumb.


Self-compassion, besides being a tool in and of itself, may help to make other adaptive tools in the toolbox feel more available. If you stop hitting yourself over the head with your self-blame hammer, it’s easier to get a clearer look at what else is in the toolbox.

Getting personal

My go-to maladaptive strategy is usually avoidance. I have some good adaptive tools in my toolbox, but with a combination of worse stress and worse depression, those tools get kidnapped and simply aren’t available to me. I’ve never known quite what to do about that. Procrastination doesn’t often figure into my avoidance; at least with that, I’m always aware of the stress-prolonging and stress-increasing effects. One of the reasons I’m so anti-hospital is that the loss of autonomy tends to bring out my worst batch of maladaptive strategies, including significant hostility, which isn’t fun for me or for anyone else.

Do you have any go-to maladaptive coping techniques that like to come out to play, or perhaps any adaptive techniques that work really well?


You can find the rest of the posts in the What Is… series in The Psychology Corner. You may also be interested in the post What Is… Eustress vs. Distress.


Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

40 thoughts on “What Is… Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Coping”

  1. I was maladaptive in my marriage and other relationships by distracting myself with buying stuff or bingeing on books/movies to mentally escape. I’d also accept blame for things that weren’t my fault in an attempt to diffuse negativity, which set up a cycle of “everything is my fault” ultimately. It was all so bad for me (and I don’t do this in work or family or regular friendships). I finally did the only thing I could do ~ stop dating. I don’t know if that’s maladaptive, but I’m happier now…

  2. I had a job I used maladaptive coping strategies during working hour. It was one of those customer service type jobs and it was filled with people yelling at the person at the window. I did the parking/campus police office clerical work. I didn’t write the tickets or create the emergencies but always caught the flack. I could change professions in the community where I live because the jobs aren’t there. The best thing I did was retire two years early. It got me out of a situation I couldn’t change.

      1. If I would have had more confidence, i would have got out sooner. I tried a lot of creative ways to make the job better and more profitable, but nothing seemed to work. It was like being stuck in a bad marriage.

  3. Thanks for the post. For me, self-compassion is the thing to work on. I agree with you that if you can come around toward self-compassion, there may be other coping strategies that come along with. I also agree that new adaptive tools need to be embraced and learned as the maladaptive behaviors are let go. You need a “good tool” in your toolbox before you may be ready to let go of a “bad tool.” That is a difficult balancing act — at least for me — since I do have several maladaptive tools hanging around that need to be replaced.

  4. Do you have any go-to maladaptive coping techniques that like to come out to play, or perhaps any adaptive techniques that work really well?

    My #1 go-to is avoidance. Fight or flight? I flight. At least I don’t freeze (thank goodness) These days I isolate far more than I’m told is emotionally/mentally healthy, but at least I’m not hostile, which is another go-to. When I was married passive-aggressive was in the toolbox for both him and me.

    Until recently I had virtually no adaptive tools to combat stress, but I’ve gotten a few now. My go-to remains avoidance. It’s really ingrained too.

  5. I can definitely relate to you regarding the adaptive tools not being available when there’s a lot of stress or some other pretty intense stuff going on. My main maladaptive coping strategy has been self-injury for years, which started out as a way of coping with the effects of another maladaptive strategy that is suppressing everything, and I guess my brain is still so used to using self-injury that when the situation becomes more difficult to handle this old tool is simply on the top of all the other tools in the toolbox so it’s easier and consumes way less resources to just pull this one out than look for something that’s deeper inside the toolbox. Avoidance is a huge thing as well and in this case I haven’t even learned any adaptive skills well enough to be able to replace it in an actual crisis. Recently I’ve also started having observations that my daydreaming, which overall I have a lot of positives from, might also be maladaptive to some degree. It certainly depends on a situation, because it often helps me for example when I need to recharge and it works really well and in this case I think it’s a pretty good tool to use, but I’ve started to notice that at other times it can get in the way of things or get out of control a bit.

  6. Hm I’m definitely familiar with the maladaptive strategy of “avoidance.” I’ll have to think about this a while longer, in terms of adaptive strategies. Not sure I’m a very strategic sort of guy.

          1. Thanks for bearing with me yesterday. I figured out how to do it now, when relaxed. I had lost all Thursday to PTSD and was trying to make up for it yesterday. There’s a 5th bio on the site now, which I formatted myself, if you want to take a look.

            1. Thanks. It’s looking better, yes. Once the three remaining young men follow through, we’ll be done (and it will have a better gender blend.)

      1. “Classic combo” makes it sound like a McDonald’s order.

        “Hi, I’d like to get the procrastination-escapism combo deal with extra self-criticism on the side. Yes, I’d like some avoidance sauce to go with it. Hold the binge-eating though. Thank you!”

  7. I came across your site searching by the word “coping” and I look forward to reading your posts! Coping is something that we all do, and some better (more adaptive) than others. I have tried the self medication and now I’m on a quest to cope with the depression that tries to creep in with the gym!

      1. When I went through divorce in 2017 I cycled 4 days a week and reached 15 miles a day by 6 months and lost 33 lbs before life’s next challenge dealt me another blow, so I’m hopeful that it will work out even better this time.

  8. For many years my way for ignoring this was through avoidance and addiction. Addiction for me was a huge escape goat. Since being in recovery. I have developed a much healthier way of dealing with things. Everything from CBT, medication and other stuff.

  9. thanks for this,
    im 60 now, i spent many years in my 20s in freeze, overwhelmed, avoid mode….i didnt know it at the time. Avoidant attachment and the trauma c-ptsd associated with it was a very difficult thing to deal with; the anxiety, depression and difficulty thinking and problem solving along with the isolation were a complex, multi factor problem. For all of my 20s didnt really think i would probably survive, the combination of whatever help there was my mind was so tight and i was so mistrustful i couldnt use it. Counselling education, so i could read, take my time, and figure out the problem myself was a significant help, so were 12 step groups to find safe space to talk….

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