Maladaptive Behaviour: What It Is and How to Deal With It

The human mind adapts to its environment to solve problems. Maladaptive behaviour is a type of psychological disorder that occurs when an individual fails to adjust to their environment effectively and has difficulty functioning in everyday life. The danger of maladaptive patterns is that they can lead to serious negative consequences if not addressed.

We will explore the types of maladaptive behaviour, their signs, causes, and treatments available so that you will have a better understanding of this complex issue. With help and support, people who experience maladaptive behavioral patterns can learn how to manage their symptoms and live a more fulfilling life.

What Is Maladaptive Behavior?

Maladaptive behaviour is an umbrella term for various behaviors that impair one’s social, occupational, and psychological functioning. It can range from mild to severe and may present itself in different forms depending on the person exhibiting it. Such behavior hinders an individual’s ability to adjust to everyday life and meet their goals.

Many types of maladaptive behavior will be discussed later, but some common examples include: avoiding situations or activities that cause discomfort or fear. Let’s say you fear public speaking but must present in front of your colleagues. You may choose not to do the task and will find other ways to avoid it; this can be seen as an example of maladaptive behaviour.

However, single maladaptive behavior examples do not necessarily indicate a problem. You choose to avoid public speaking for one time, but if you consistently avoid it or any other situation that makes you uncomfortable, it’s a sign of a severe issue.

Am I Experiencing Maladaptive Behavior?

One way to know if you have a maladaptive personality is to look out for the signs and symptoms. Common signs include:

  • Prolonged avoidance behaviors
  • Unhealthy coping strategies such as self-harm, excessive use of drugs or alcohol, and so on.
  • Social isolation or withdrawal from society
  • Impulsive actions without considering the consequences
  • Lack of motivation or an inability to stay focused on a task.
  • Becoming easily frustrated or angry in situations where it is not appropriate.

We highlight the fact that maladaptive behaviour remains unnoticed for an extended period, as people don’t exhibit outward signs of distress. It is, therefore, important to be aware of the subtle changes in behavior that may indicate that something is wrong.

What Are the Causes of Maladaptive Behavior?

What is maladaptive behavior? Pathological adaptive behavior is often due to a combination of psychological, circumstantial, and mental health factors. Some of the most common causes include:

  1. Trauma – Traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, or bullying can cause maladaptive behaviuor to develop as coping mechanisms for dealing with the pain and distress associated with these events.
  2. Medical conditions – Conditions such as depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues may lead to cartain behaviors to deal with emotional pain or stress. Some other physical conditions, such as autism or developmental disorders, can also contribute to maladaptive behaviors.
  3. Low self-esteem – If an individual has a poor self-image, they may turn to maladaptive behaviuor to feel better about themselves.
  4. Social pressures – Pressure from peers or family members may cause an individual to engage in maladaptive behaviors to fit in or be accepted.
  5. Poor coping skills – When individuals have limited coping strategies for dealing with stress, they may resort to maladaptive behaviour as a form of self-medication.

How Do Maladaptive Responses Manifest?

Maladaptive behaviour may manifest in various ways, depending on the individual and their unique set of circumstances. However, we can differentiate between five common types of it, each with its own distinct signs and symptoms.

Social Isolation

Maladaptive behaviour in the form of social isolation occurs when an individual withdraws from social settings, either intentionally or unintentionally. It can manifest as a lack of motivation to engage in social activities or a lack of interest in interacting with others. List of maladaptive behaviors may include:

  • Spending excessive amounts of time alone
  • Not participating in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Loss of interest in previously engaging activities
  • Rejection of offers of social interaction

Some other examples include the physical distance from others, avoiding eye contact and communication, feeling uncomfortable in conversations, or lacking the motivation to communicate with others. Individuals often see maladaptive behaviour as an adaptation to specific situations and environments, which can serve as a way to protect oneself from potential harm.

However, isolation can be harmful when it is prolonged and leads to decreased functioning in many aspects of life. Behavior related to isolation typically includes socioemotional difficulties such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Emotional Dysregulation

Outbursts of anger are a common symptom of maladaptive behaviour. These outbursts can take various forms, ranging from shouting to physical violence, or perhaps more subtly in the form of verbal abuse and sarcasm.

Whatever form they may take, these outbursts typically signify an inability to cope with strong emotions such as aggression and frustration. Outbursts that occur frequently or are disproportionate to the situation are often considered signs of maladaptive behaviour.

For example, yelling at a spouse or child over minor things, such as leaving the milk out, or displaying extreme anger in response to an innocent comment, could be considered an emotional disorder. It differs from spontaneous outbursts caused by occasional emotional regulation lapses, as they become more frequent and intense over time.

Acting Out

Acting out is a maladaptive behaviour involving lashing out in dangerous or inappropriate ways. It typically manifests as an attempt to escape from difficult situations, intense boredom, or severe depression.

Symptoms of this type of behavior can include drug abuse, shoplifting, fighting, and vandalism. People struggling with acting out may work to express themselves constructively.

According to the maladaptive behaviors definition, they may also have difficulty responding appropriately when faced with stressful events or feelings of anxiety.

Rather than dealing with the root cause of their distress, people who act out engage in risky behaviors as a means to cope. Their lifestyle can lead to further problems, including negative relationships and legal issues.


Self-harm is a severe form of maladaptive behaviour. It involves the conscious and intentional infliction of physical harm to oneself in an attempt to cope with emotional distress or conflictual situations.

Self-harm may take form of cutting, burning, scratching, head banging, or overdosing on drugs or alcohol. For example, an individual feeling overwhelmed by life stressors may resort to self-harming maladaptive behaviour to distract themselves from the source of their pain and suffering.

While self-harm is a common coping mechanism for people dealing with difficult emotions and experiences, it can be dangerous and lead to serious injury or even death if not appropriately addressed. As such, individuals engaging in this type of behavior should seek professional help immediately.

How Maladaptive Behaviour Impairs Quality of Life

Maladaptive behaviour can also interfere with an individual’s quality of life, as they may be unable to manage their emotions effectively or form and maintain healthy relationships. This can lead to the following:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty finding and keeping a job
  • Poor physical health
  • Social isolation
  • Substance abuse

While these behaviors can lead to serious consequences, they may not be immediately apparent. Hence, it is essential to adress the issue of maladaptive behaviour as soon as the signs become apparent.

However, if you already have unhealthy behaviors, there are ways to cope with them. Medical treatment is just one of them; before visiting a doctor, try to practice some self-care methods.

How To Cope With Maladaptive Behaviour

The good news is that there are ways to cope with maladaptive behaviour if you or someone close experiences it. If you struggle to cope with behavioral patterns, it is essential to seek professional help. A therapist or counselor can provide insight and support as you learn how to manage your emotions and behaviors better.

Therapy can teach various strategies for coping with maladaptive behaviour, such as stress management techniques, mindfulness practices, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. It can also offer a safe space in which to discuss any underlying issues that may be contributing to your mental state.

Meanwhile, you can also practice some self-care methods. They will facilitate your recovery from the maladaptive behaviour and makes it easier to manage. Here are some of them.

Increase Your Emotional Awareness

When you experience maladaptive behaviour, it is essential to address and express your feelings in a healthy way. That means tuning into those emotions and being aware of them without judgment or self-criticism.

Working on increasing your emotional awareness can help you identify what triggers specific behaviour to manage it better. For example, if stress triggers maladaptive behaviour, you can start using deep breathing or mindfulness techniques to manage better and respond to stressful situations.

Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms

It is essential to develop healthy coping mechanisms to use whenever a maladaptive behaviour arises. This could include exercising, discussing your problems with a friend/counselor, engaging in hobbies, or even listening to music. Find something that works for you and stick to it.

Practicing healthy coping habits will help provide some balance when dealing with unhealthy behaviors. It can also clarify how best to handle different situations and foster a sense of self-compassion and acceptance.

Gradually Make Changes

When it comes to working on maladaptive behaviour, it is essential to be patient and persistent. Even if progress isn’t seen quickly, don’t give up. Anchoring yourself in the present moment and taking things one step at a time will help make the journey easier.

It can also be helpful to identify triggers that cause maladaptive behaviour and then actively work on avoiding those situations. Additionally, engaging in positive self-talk can help reduce stress levels and assist you in making decisions that will be beneficial in the long run.


Maladaptive behaviour can be hard to manage, and it can take a toll on the person experiencing it. However, there are ways to cope with it as understanding what leads to unhealthy patterns, gradually making changes, and seeking professional help when needed.

With the right combination of self-awareness and consistent effort, mental issues can be managed in a way that helps individuals lead happier and more productive lives. Thus, it is essential to learn the maladaptiveness definition psychology  and take proactive steps toward managing it.

Contact a mental health professional if you are struggling with addictive behaviors and need help. Taking these steps can make a world of difference in terms of dealing with this condition.

I'm Alana Wade, a psychologist with over five years of experience working with relationships. I've dedicated my career to helping couples and families create lasting, meaningful connections.

One comment

  1. This is so about me! I have been struggling with maladaptive behavior for a long time, and this article has really helped me gain insight into my own issues. It’s so reassuring to know that there are ways to deal with these behaviors in a positive manner. Now I know I’m not alone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *