Posted on 52 Comments

What is a maladaptive coping behavior?

maladaptive coping mechanisms are used to keep dangerous feelings from damaging our sense of self. They become destructive when overused such as in eating disorders and addiction

A maladaptive coping behavior is a behavior that we utilize to soothe ourselves when we feel anxious. Mildly avoidant coping behaviors may look like frequently avoiding using the elevator because you feel a bit anxious in elevators and stairs are easily accessible.

But sometimes coping behaviors can overwhelm our ability to live a “normal” life. For example, a fear of elevators may mean refusing to ever ride in an elevator, spending excessive energy and time researching stair access in buildings, using the stairs even when it adds significant hardship, and refusing to go places that don’t have reasonable stair access (e.g. an office on Floor 10 or above). At this point, when a coping behavior interferes with normal life, it may be called “maladaptive.”

Maladaptive coping behaviors are a response to anxiety

Maladaptive coping behaviors usually start small, such as avoiding the elevator when it’s convenient. But they can also grow over time and take over our lives. This is because the problem is rooted in anxiety. Anxiety impacts us both psychologically and physically. Some symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Uncontrollable fear
  • Rage
  • Asking the same question over and over again
  • Wanting to run away
  • Extreme chest pain
  • Crying or screaming
  • Jittering or shaking
  • Nausea or heartburn
  • Fainting or physically shutting down

Obviously, when we feel these awful symptoms of anxiety, we want them to stop. We need them to go away! So we reach for coping behaviors to feel better. Coping mechanisms can be mild or severe. They typically make us feel better temporarily, but only one will help us feel better in the long run.

Maladaptive coping behaviors help in the short term but hurt in the long term. They may have physical, emotional, and social side effects that are even worse than the anxiety itself. They also tend to make anxiety get worse over time. Healthy coping behaviors will help in the short- and long-term, and they reduce anxiety over time.

Common maladaptive coping behaviors include:

Anxiety disorders are common, and thus maladaptive coping behaviors are also fairly common. Some maladaptive coping behaviors include:

  • Eating disorders
  • Shoplifting/Kleptomania
  • Overspending/Shopping addiction
  • Promiscuous sex/Sex addiction
  • Substance abuse/Alcohol abuse
  • Self-harm
  • Compulsive lying

It is very common for a person to develop more than one maladaptive coping behavior or mechanism. Another thing that often happens is we will overcome one maladaptive coping behavior only to replace it with a different one. For example, someone who had an eating disorder may develop a substance abuse problem.

What’s the reason for maladaptive coping behaviors?

At their core, maladaptive coping behaviors are attempting to help us. They seem like a great idea because they immediately seem to solve a distressing emotional state.

Here are some examples of people using maladaptive coping behaviors:

  • Jane feels stressed and unloved when she visits with family. After family events, phone calls, and even emails she shops compulsively and has racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
  • Michael divorced his partner and feels lonely. Every night he comes home to an empty house and eats bags of potato chips and cartons of ice cream, then gets a stomachache and feels ashamed of himself for having no control.
  • Sarah suffered sexual trauma as a child and now has PTSD. Several nights each week she finds herself at bars picking up on strangers and sleeping with them. She wishes she wouldn’t do this, and doesn’t understand why it keeps happening.
  • Jamal’s parents were both incarcerated and used substances heavily. He always swore that he wouldn’t get mixed up in that and became a successful lawyer with a family. But he has fallen into the habit of drinking a bottle of wine every night, sometimes more.

Maladaptive coping behaviors are rarely something that we “pick” or decide to do. They typically arise from our subconscious and feel compulsive and instinctual. They usually feel like the only option to living life with anxiety.

When a behavior becomes maladaptive

Most people can relate to at least one of the coping behaviors we listed. That’s because everyone uses coping behaviors, and they aren’t always maladaptive. For example, most people have used shopping, alcohol, food, and other maladaptive coping behaviors occasionally to cope with stress.

It’s important to recognize the difference between using something occasionally and feeling better and using something compulsively. A person who is stuck in a maladaptive coping behavior may notice that they feel:

  1. Compelled to use the behavior even if they don’t want to
  2. Ashamed of themselves for using the behavior
  3. Notice that they need the behavior more often and/or need a higher dose over time

These three elements can signal that someone is becoming dependent on a maladaptive coping behavior.

How can we stop maladaptive coping behaviors?

The most important thing to recognize when dealing with maladaptive coping mechanisms is that they are there to help. While they may look obviously destructive to other people, the person who is using them feels soothed and better when using the behavior.

This is why saying that someone needs to stop the maladaptive coping behavior “cold turkey” can backfire. Unless we replace the maladaptive coping behavior with healthy coping behaviors, we can cause more harm than good.

If we want a child or someone we love to stop using maladaptive coping behaviors like eating disorders, we need to help them uncover the stress they are trying to cope with. Then we need to help them build healthy coping behaviors so they can replace one with the other.

If we try to rip the maladaptive coping behavior away without recognizing the purpose the behavior is serving, we risk driving it underground or morphing into another form because we have not actually addressed the core problem.

Healthy coping behaviors include:

  • Self-compassion
  • Mindful meditation
  • Exercise or movement
  • Pursuing passions, hobbies, and crafts
  • Processing feelings mindfully, not automatically
  • Actively seeking care and attention from loved ones
  • Developing some distraction “tricks” to get through an anxious state, such as making a list of fruits and vegetables, naming all of the car manufacturers, or seeking a specific color in the environment.
  • Reaching out to a friend or family member for help
  • Getting professional therapy, counseling, or coaching
  • Participating in and feeling as if you belong to a community

We created this short video to illustrate maladaptive coping mechanisms.

How we feel feelings

When we are in a normal state, various feelings circulate in and out of our minds rapidly. However, when we have depression or anxiety, our feelings begin to get stuck in our orbit. Then, negative feelings become larger, while positive feelings become smaller.

At this point, some of us engage maladaptive coping mechanisms in an attempt to protect ourselves from these negative emotions. Unfortunately, when we use these coping mechanisms, we minimize and keep out positive emotions even more than before.

Feeling better in the short-term

Maladaptive coping mechanisms are behaviors that make us feel better in the short term, but in the long-term, they are very harmful. They include eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol & substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, shoplifting, risk-taking behavior and compulsive lying.

Once we become dependent on our maladaptive coping mechanisms, we become emotionally weaker, and even less able to withstand negative emotions. But our maladaptive coping mechanisms convince us that they are the solution to our pain.

Even as our maladaptive coping mechanisms bring us to our knees, we are unable to see how they are perpetuating the pain we are trying to avoid.

Adaptive coping mechanisms

Adaptive, or healthy coping mechanisms, are skills that we must learn in order to overcome our maladaptive coping mechanisms. If we try to stop our maladaptive behavior without learning healthy skills, we are unlikely to succeed. Healthy coping skills include learning to process emotions, learning to care for ourselves, and being assertive about our needs.

As we slowly learn these skills, we gain strength against the maladaptive coping behavior, slowly integrating our new tools for managing negative emotions. As we do this, positive feelings become more present in our lives. Over time, our feelings begin to circulate again. Even as this happens, and even as we begin to feel positive emotions again, we must be vigilant about practicing our healthy skills to ensure we can make a full transition and become truly recovered.

Recovery from maladaptive coping behaviors

People can and do recover from maladaptive coping behaviors like eating disorders. The key is to learn to “urge surf” or allow the urge to arise but respond with adaptive coping mechanisms.

Recovery means that we can live in the world and experience a broad variety of positive and negative emotions. We no longer need to rely on our maladaptive coping behavior to feel safe and secure.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.

52 thoughts on “What is a maladaptive coping behavior?

  1. […] of us who have eating disorders are using them as a coping mechanism for uncomfortable feelings. Rather than attack the food and eating behavior, it can be very useful […]

  2. […] Adolescence is also a time when anxiety disorders and depression can negatively impact natural development. Anxiety and depression can be managed, but the sooner they are addressed, the better for your child’s long-term prognosis. Both anxiety and depression are frequent precursors to many other mental disorders, including eating disorders, substance abuse and other maladaptive coping behaviors. […]

  3. […] the body to counter-balance anxious, negative energy that can lead to eating disorder behaviors as coping mechanisms. By adding some visualization to the pose, you can help your child process anxiety in a healthy, […]

  4. […] times an eating disorder will develop as a maladaptive coping mechanism following a traumatic event. This coping mechanism may involve restricting food, binge-eating, and […]

  5. […] in the sea of humanity, and question our role and value. Without a sense of belonging, we build maladaptive coping mechanisms to help us deal with a lonely world. Sadly, our disorder isolates us, driving us even further into […]

  6. […] a change. Just like our kids can’t cut out their eating disorders without replacing their maladaptive coping mechanism with new tools for self care, we can’t cut out alcohol without building better self care […]

  7. […] children who have eating disorders are using food, restriction and purging as a maladaptive coping mechanism to process their emotions. They are, in essence, gaslighting […]

  8. […] a change. Just like our kids can’t cut out their eating disorders without replacing their maladaptive coping mechanism with new tools for self-care, we can’t cut out alcohol without building better self-care […]

  9. […] times an eating disorder will develop as a maladaptive coping mechanism following a traumatic event. This coping mechanism may involve restricting food, binge-eating, and […]

  10. […] Adolescence is also a time when anxiety disorders and depression can negatively impact natural development. Anxiety and depression can be managed, but the sooner they are addressed, the better for your child’s long-term prognosis. Both anxiety and depression are frequent precursors to many other mental disorders, including eating disorders, substance abuse, and other maladaptive coping behaviors. […]

  11. […] of us who have eating disorders are using them as a coping mechanism for uncomfortable feelings. Rather than attack the food and eating behavior, it can be very useful […]

  12. […] the body to counter-balance anxious, negative energy that can lead to eating disorder behaviors as coping mechanisms. By adding some visualization to the pose, you can help your child process anxiety in a healthy, […]

  13. […] It is only when we bring our vulnerability into the light and see that the eating disorder was a maladaptive coping mechanism for our pain that we can […]

  14. […] When we repeatedly engage in restrictive behaviors, eating disorders take over. At this point, it’s no longer just about the food and weight, it’s about the control, the power, and the ability to soothe our needs with restriction, bingeing and/or purging. Disordered eating becomes a maladaptive coping behavior. […]

  15. […] about the eating disorder, but you are outsmarting it by understanding what lies beneath the maladaptive behavior. When we treat our eating disorder with kindness and compassion, we are able to free […]

  16. […] to process feelings and emotions in a healthy manner rather than using food and body obsession as a maladaptive coping mechanism. On a personal mind level, the person who has an eating disorder learns to respond to emotional […]

  17. […] understand our children’s feelings and can help them process their feelings in adaptive (vs. maladaptive) ways. Emotional literacy involves learning the words to define how we feel, which often bring […]

  18. […] disorders are maladaptive coping mechanisms that people develop as a way to tolerate uncomfortable emotions. While vacations can be a lot of […]

  19. […] You may turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as drinking, eating too much or too little, taking sleeping pills, and compulsive […]

  20. […] quality to the action of purging. Eating disorders, especially Bulimia Nervosa, can be described as Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms, which are subconscious mechanisms to soothe anxious feelings. Bulimia has been linked to underlying […]

  21. […] a person has conditions such as depression, anxiety, and trauma, they tend to seek maladaptive coping behaviors to help them tolerate intolerable feelings. Maladaptive coping mechanisms include substance abuse, […]

  22. […] can drive maladaptive coping mechanisms. These behaviors, such as eating disorders, can be a way to self-soothe when faced with anxiety and […]

  23. […] disorders don’t come out of nowhere. They are powerful coping mechanisms that developed for good reason. The more we understand the reason, the better we are able to […]

  24. […] To understand this more, take a look at our video about Maladaptive Coping Behaviors: […]

  25. […] disorders and other disordered behaviors. This makes perfect sense, since eating disorders are a coping mechanism, and if we have ever need to cope with something, this is […]

  26. I absolutely can’t stand “not loving your body” blah blah blah comments. People focusing on and assuming oh the girl just wants to be skinny, why doesn’t she just eat less. And saying I trying to find a way to “punish myself is even more ridiculous.

    You know why I purge. Because it is the only way to relieve all the anxiety and stress I feel about all the bad things happening to or around or that have happened to me . That feeling of lol those bad feeling going down the shower drain it is one of the best feelings in the world. I m aware it is destroying my body it’s been and issue for 11 years but I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t there.

    1. I’m so sorry that you experience so much anxiety and stress. I completely understand the soothing impact of eating disorder behaviors. Many of us find that learning new coping behaviors makes our anxiety and stress more manageable, making eating disorder behaviors no longer necessary to survive. I just wanted to give you some encouragement in case you are considering recovery now or in the future. xoxo

  27. […] There is evidence to suggest that people who have eating disorders are more likely to be sensitive to chronic stress. [8] When you’re chronically stressed, food and eating disorder behaviors can be powerful soothing agents. Eating disorder behaviors can become maladaptive coping mechanisms. […]

  28. […] behaviors of an eating disorder often begin as a coping strategy. They are compensation or an attempt to meet a need (to be healthy, good, more confident, or better […]

  29. […] don’t act on their eating disorder behaviors, they may find themselves overwhelmed. They may seek coping mechanisms when taking part in a high-stimulation holiday like the Fourth of […]

  30. […] eating disorder has become a powerful coping mechanism for your daughter. It is how she survives in her life right now. Therefore, in treatment she needs […]

  31. […] disorders are maladaptive coping mechanisms that we employ to help us process uncomfortable emotional states. This means they have a reason and […]

  32. […] disorder to abstain from their behaviors can have serious repercussions. The eating disorder is a coping mechanism for emotional despair. Abrupt abstinence can leave the person without a safety […]

  33. […] who understand that maladaptive behaviors arise in the context of the family system are able to support a child’s complete recovery. […]

  34. […] eating disorders are coping mechanisms that your child has discovered makes them feel better. Even though it seems like a terrible thing […]

  35. […] mom. She had pain, but she didn’t feel she could get support from her parents. Bulimia became her coping method. When her mother talked to Jessie about her pain, their relationship began to heal. Jessie won’t […]

  36. […] the fact that eating disorders are not simple. Eating disorders are also not inexplicable. They are coping behaviors that we have adopted based on a specific set of circumstances. These circumstances are beyond our […]

  37. […] thinking on eating disorders has come a long way in the last several decades. They are viewed as maladaptive coping mechanisms, and many people fully recover from an eating disorder. Eating disorders are treated a […]

  38. […] be abstinent from the behaviors of an eating disorder. True healing comes when the person learns to cope with their emotions without their eating […]

  39. […] and eating disorders can be described as maladaptive coping mechanisms. They help relieve tension, release anger, regain a sense of self-control, and eliminate a sense of […]

  40. […] People who have an eating disorder typically become disconnected from their feelings. Rather than process feelings, someone with an eating disorder turns to food and exercise behaviors and an obsession with weight as a coping mechanism. […]

  41. […] And parents are often in the best position to help kids unlearn the habit of coping with anxiety in maladaptive […]

  42. […] I hope you haven’t!), you’ve likely experienced a situation that caused you to revert to a maladaptive coping mechanism—something that helps you feel better in the short-term, like me avoiding conflict with my […]

  43. […] if feelings are repressed. In fact, repressed feelings are integral to almost all addictive and maladaptive behaviors, including eating […]

  44. […] trained therapist can help find out what is she in pain about. Why is she using bulimia as a coping method? And then a therapist will help her gain new coping methods so that she no longer needs bulimia to […]

  45. […] Eating disorders and alcohol use can create a vicious cycle. The person avoids uncomfortable feelings and fails to adopt healthy coping mechanisms. Instead of learning to process stress and discomfort, people who have eating disorders and drinking problems rely on coping behaviors. […]

  46. […] The key here is that parents can play an integral role in eating disorder recovery by focusing on co-regulating with their child, which will build the child’s ability to self-regulate and therefore not seek eating disorder behaviors as a coping mechanism. […]

  47. […] eating disorder recovery can make sense through this lens. Anxiety often underlies and drives maladaptive coping behaviors. It makes sense, and it needs to […]

  48. […] to handle persistent tension. Nevertheless, concerns occur when individuals practice unhealthy or maladaptive coping techniques— such as avoidance methods or drug abuse– that can avoid individuals from living their […]

  49. […] disruption like COVID-19 naturally increased rates of eating disorders, which can become a powerful coping mechanism. How parents and families respond to eating disorder behaviors can influence treatment […]

  50. […] What is a maladaptive coping behavior? More-Love […]

  51. […] emotional literacy and emotional regulation. Eating disorder behaviors help people cope with their emotional states, so training your child to have good emotional regulation is a major […]

Leave a Reply