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.
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 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
- 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
- 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)
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.
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?
- Algonquin College: Coping and Distress Tolerance Package
- Anxiety Network: Coping Statements for Anxiety
- Consortium for Organizational Mental Healthcare: Positive Coping with Health Conditions
- Hamilton Health Sciences: Using Coping Statements to Avoid Common Thinking Traps
- Heart & Stroke Foundation: Coping With Stress
- Mass General Brigham EAP: Building Your Coping Skills
- Montana Office of Public Instruction: Mental Wellness Coping Statement Cards
- Shout: Little Book of Coping Skills
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Coping Cards
- Brown, L. J., & Bond, M. J. (2019). The pragmatic derivation and validation of measures of adaptive and maladaptive coping styles. Cogent Psychology, 6(1), 1568070.
- Sutton, J. (2020). Maladaptive Coping: 15 Examples & How to Break the Cycle. PositivePsychology.com.
- Young, J. (2012). Common maladaptive coping responses. SchemaTherapy.com.
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.