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

What is a maladaptive coping behavior?

A maladaptive coping behavior is anything that we utilize to soothe uncomfortable emotional states. We also have adaptive coping behaviors that serve the same purpose, but the maladaptive behaviors are overwhelmingly compelling for some of us.

Common 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.

For example, if we feel anxiety, we may reach for food restriction as a way to gain a sense of control over the world. If we feel uncared for, we may feed ourselves large quantities of food in order to care for ourselves. If we feel disgusting and unlovable, we may purge as a form of punishment.

Maladaptive coping behaviors arise from our subconscious and seem instinctual. For those of us susceptible to developing them, they never feel like a choice – they seem compelling and inevitable.

How can we stop maladaptive coping behaviors?

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 emotional states they are trying to cope with. Then we need to help them build adaptive 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.

Adaptive coping behaviors include:

  • Self-compassion
  • Processing feelings mindfully, not automatically
  • Actively seeking care and attention from loved ones
  • Developing some distraction “tricks” to get through an anxious mood state, such as making a list of fruits and vegetables, naming all of the car manufacturers, or seeking a specific color.

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

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


Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

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