What is Maladaptive Behaviour?
Generally, adaptive behaviour is the collection of skills that people learn and employ to be able to function in everyday life. These skills range from talking to getting dressed to going to work. They allow us to adapt to the demands of life and fulfil our needs.
Maladaptive behaviour refers to the type of behaviour that inhibits a person’s ability to adjust to certain situations. We inevitably face challenges and conflicts in daily life and must adapt our behaviour to face them. Sometimes, however, people can develop a tendency to escape these challenges rather than deal with them.
There are several types of maladaptive behaviour, ranging from relatively minor impairments (such as nail-biting and separation difficulties), to more severe impairments (such as self-harm). Some frequent types and treatment options are examined below.
Example of Maladaptive Behaviour: Avoidance Coping
Avoidance coping is a type of behaviour in which someone avoids stressful thoughts or feelings in order to protect themselves from psychological damage. This type of behaviour, however, actually creates stress and anxiety, which lowers self-confidence. It involves both seeking situations in which there are less stressors, and avoiding situations in which there more.
A common manifestation of avoidance coping is panic disorder, which can itself lead to agoraphobia, a condition in which sufferers become anxious in unfamiliar environments.
Anxiety, if not managed, can also lead to unwarranted anger. Whereas anger is a normal human emotion that is experienced from time to time, anger directed in certain ways – for example, via long-term frustration – can be extremely harmful to individuals and those around them.
There are several treatment options for sufferers of avoidance coping. With cognitive behavioural therapy, sufferers are encouraged to become aware of their emotional states and accept them in order to move forward.
With psychoanalytic therapy, behaviours are diagnosed and analysed. With acceptance and commitment therapy, sufferers are encouraged to break down their avoidance coping and to identify the ways in which it is non-beneficial. With exposure therapy, sufferers are encouraged to incrementally face their fears in order to overcome them.
Example of Maladaptive Behaviour: Self-harm (SH)
Self-harm is the deliberate, direct, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue without suicidal intent and for purposes not socially sanctioned (Gratz 2001). It used to be known as ‘deliberate self-harm’ or DSH, but the terminology has become more neutral to remove an implication of blame.
By far, the most common form of self-harm is skin-cutting, but people can also overdose, burn themselves, cause themselves physical trauma, scratch themselves, pull their hair, interfere with healing wounds, and so on. It can be spontaneous or planned, and it can be a regular occurrence or a one-off event.
Self-harm might seem to outsiders a choice rather than a compulsion, but it should be remembered that people self-harm when experiencing significant inner turmoil. It can function as a coping mechanism to provide temporary relief from that turmoil, which could stem from depression, anxiety, stress or low self-esteem. It can create an illusion of control, or can feel like a punishment to relieve guilt. As such, self-harm can become psychologically addictive.
As it is frequently a result of historical abuse or trauma, treatment for self-harm is rarely a quick process. But, there is help available. You could talk to a professional; there are many different types of therapy, from psychodynamic therapy (talking about your current situation) to cognitive behavioural therapy (focusing on how your thoughts and behaviour interact).
You could also talk to a non-professional; sometimes, talking to a friend or family member can help you feel less alone with your problems. There are also groups; meeting with people who have similar problems can reveal insights from similar experiences.
Example of Maladaptive Behaviour: Disordered Eating
Disordered eating should be differentiated from an eating disorder. Disordered eating refers to a range of abnormal eating behaviours, including binge-eating, excessive dieting, bulimia, and attachment of wellbeing to body image. When the level of severity of one or more of these behaviours becomes enough to form a diagnosis, it is considered to have become an eating disorder.
The most common form of disordered eating is dieting – that is, severely restricting the amount of food you eat. While not everyone who does this will develop an eating disorder, almost everyone with an eating disorder has, at some point, dieted. When this happens, the body reduces its metabolic rate and this commonly results in overeating.
Disordered eating can have profound destructive consequences to someone’s life and research has shown a relationship between disordered eating and the ability to deal with stress or conflict. There is also a relationship in adolescents between suicidal thoughts or behaviours and disordered eating.
Even if you have been engaging in disordered eating for many years, it is possible to change that behaviour. To enact this change, the best and most effective first step is to see your GP – he/she can refer you to a specialist who can provide you with tailored advice and actions.
This could range from a psychotherapist to help you understand the importance you attach to body image, to a nutritionist to help you create strategies around your attention for feelings of hunger.
Example of Maladaptive Behaviour: Substance Misuse
Substance misuse is a complex issue. It can be thought of as the use of illicit drugs, or the use of prescribed medications in ways other than their intended purpose, or problematic use of alcohol. More generally, it can be thought of as the taking of any substance (including alcohol) in such a way that it leads to harm.
Substance misuse has been found in some cases to correlate with anti-social behaviour, criminal behaviour and changes in personality. While statistics suggest that illicit drug use is falling in the UK, it remains widespread globally and so is often a priority in health policies.
The effects of substance misuse can be wide-ranging, depending on the substance(s) in question. Addiction, death, injury, violence, accidents, homicide and suicide all have links (to varying degrees) to the misuse of substances. For example, the rate of suicide frequently increases with alcoholism.
When substance misuse reaches a level of severity whereby the user’s everyday life is affected, that user is said to have an addiction. An addiction is a brain disease that, despite negative consequences, causes someone to seek and use a substance. In this condition, someone moves from a state of willing engagement with a substance to a compulsive state, in search of rewarding stimuli.
There are, however, treatments available to help people overcome addiction and reduce or eliminate substance misuse. Research has shown that addiction-treating medications, in conjunction with behavioural therapy, offers a high success rate.
If you are comfortable talking to your GP, this would be a good place to start looking for treatment; you can discuss any problems and receive specific advice for the most appropriate treatment. If not, self-referring substance misuse services (such as Turning Point) are available.
Possible Benefits of Maladaptive Behaviours
In general, maladaptive behaviours are undesirable. Those with maladaptive behaviours can cause significant harm to themselves and those around them. However, certain forms have been seen to be beneficial in some circumstances. Exercise and relaxation techniques, for example, are both activities that allow someone to avoid a problem by engaging in another activity. But, some studies have shown both to effectively lessen anxiety.
Clearly, some forms of maladaptive behaviour have little to no benefits – drug misuse, for example. But, there may exist a situation in which someone doesn’t have the resources to face a problem. In these circumstances, it could be beneficial to engage in exercise or a relaxation technique in order to alleviate anxiety.