Maladaptive Behaviour – Causes, Examples, and Ways to Cope

Maladaptive behaviours impede one from coping with situations or stressors in healthy ways.

Maladaptive behaviours refer to actions or habits that cause harmful consequences in an individual’s daily life. These actions interfere with their ability to adapt and adjust to specific challenges and stressors. Identifying maladaptive behaviour is crucial as it can significantly impact one’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

It can manifest in various forms – addiction, eating disorder, and self-harm. However, early detection and understanding can also help prevent adverse outcomes and boost self-awareness and good health. In this article, we talk about maladaptive behaviour examples, delve deeper into the root causes, and discuss how to identify if you have maladaptive behaviour.

What is Maladaptive Behaviour?

Have you ever noticed how we sometimes react differently to challenges in life? When we respond positively to situations, it’s called adaptive behaviour. But when we react negatively, it’s called maladaptive behaviour. Adaptive behaviour is when we choose to find a solution or try to minimise a problem.

It could mean doing something you do not necessarily like or finding an alternative way to get the job done. It is all about adjusting to the situation and making the most of it. For example, a reader who is losing their eyesight could choose to learn Braille or switch to audiobooks so they can still enjoy their books.

On the other hand, maladaptive behaviour is when we ignore a problem or do not take any action to solve it. It is like avoiding the issue and letting it control us instead of us controlling it. For instance, the same reader who finds it difficult to acknowledge their vision loss or is unwilling to adopt might feel out of control and avoid taking any action. They end up missing out on their beloved books.

The Consequence of Maladaptive Coping

Ultimately, maladaptive behaviours prevent you from dealing with the root cause of your anxiety. We often tend to resort to dysfunctional coping mechanisms to deal with distressing emotions. While it might feel like these strategies are effective at the moment, the truth is that they only act as a temporary fix. Over time, they can actually make things worse and create complex problems.

So, what do you think? Are you an adaptive or maladaptive person? If you are the latter, how do you deal with maladaptive behaviour? To better understand the causes, let’s dive into this topic further!

The Causes of Maladaptive Behaviour

There are several underlying causes of maladaptive behaviour. It is important to note that while these factors may contribute to its development, they are not determining factors. Many individuals who experience these challenges do not engage in maladaptive behaviours.

The role of trauma

Trauma can play a significant role in the development of maladaptive behaviour. Trauma is a deeply distressing experience. It can occur through a single event, such as a car accident or natural disaster, or a series of events, such as childhood abuse or neglect. Survivors of a traumatic event may experience feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and depression, which can lead to the development of harmful coping mechanisms. They may use avoidance, self-blame, or substance abuse to manage the distress that comes with the trauma.

Unfortunately, some of these coping strategies can develop into maladaptive behaviours that continue long after the traumatic event is over. For example, someone with sexual trauma may turn to self-harm to suppress their feelings of shame, guilt, or negative thoughts.

Research shows that childhood sexual abuse is associated with self-harm, substance abuse, and unsafe sexual habits. It is also linked to psychopathology, especially major depressive disorder (MDD), and high-risk behaviours. Additionally, the severity and frequency of the traumatic event can also influence the development of maladaptive behaviour.

Mental health disorders 

Conditions such as anxiety, personality disorders, depression, and developmental disorders can lead to maladaptive behaviours. These disorders can alter how a person perceives and reacts to stressful situations. This pattern pushes them to adopt a coping mechanism that may become harmful over time. Anxiety disorders, for example, can cause excessive worry, fear, and nervousness, which can lead to behaviours such as avoidance or addiction.

Personality disorders can also contribute to maladaptive behaviours by triggering distorted thinking patterns, difficulty maintaining relationships, and impulsiveness. People with avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) often display maladaptive behaviours.

People with AVPD tend to have an intense fear of rejection and criticism, which leads them to avoid nurturing close relationships and social situations. This avoidance can manifest as maladaptive behaviours, such as isolating oneself from friends and family or avoiding events that might put them in the spotlight.

Similarly, people with BPD tend to struggle with regulating their emotions and maintaining stable relationships. This leads them to engage in impulsive and erratic behaviours. Some of these habits include self-harm, binge eating, binge drinking, becoming involved in unhealthy relationships, and participating in risky behaviours. Both AVPD and BPD can cause significant distress and interfere with daily functioning. People with these mental health conditions often require professional help to manage their symptoms. For instance, TYHO psychologists in Singapore can help those struggling with the above mentioned conditions. 

Environmental factors

Environmental factors play a great role in the development of maladaptive behaviours. These factors include the setting in which a person grew up, family dynamics, relationships, and cultural influences. Mainly, toxic environments where neglect or abuse exists, or poverty can increase harmful coping mechanisms. Let’s take a closer look at these factors separately.

Family dynamics can impact an individual’s development and trigger them to indulge in destructive behaviours. For example, family members who engage in harmful behaviours like substance abuse or domestic violence may directly influence the child to learn their ways of coping with difficult situations. Furthermore, the lack of family support, overprotection, and unrealistic expectations can lead to feelings of stress and low self-esteem.

Relationships with others also play a role in leading to maladaptive behaviours. Toxic or abusive relationships and lack of social support can lead to psychological distress and feelings of unworthiness. Similarly, cultural expectations and societal stigma around mental health can lead individuals to internalise their symptoms. This further exacerbates maladaptive behaviours.

Besides, daily stressors like financial difficulties, job loss, and relationship issues can cause chronic stress. This stress shows up in the form of running away from responsibilities, avoiding social interactions, and filtering all the positives from life. These environmental factors can interact with one another or with other elements like genetics or neurological conditions.

Any alternations to one’s brain functioning may give rise to the development of maladaptive behaviours.

Neurological factors 

The brain’s functioning can affect our emotions, thoughts, and actions. In fact, any alterations in the brain can cause difficulties in adapting to situations and challenges. Research suggests that these neurological differences may also play a role in developing maladaptive behaviour. In particular, brain chemistry is a crucial factor that gives rise to such engagement.

The levels of neurotransmitters can impact various aspects of the human mind. Some of these chemicals include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Imbalances of these chemicals in the brain can lead to difficulties regulating emotions, drastic mood swings, erratic behaviours, and issues with controlling impulses.

Research shows that some regions of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, are involved in regulating emotions, impulse controls, and decision-making. Suppose an issue arises with the brain’s development, structure, or functioning, it can increase the risk of developing maladaptive behaviour.

In some cases, traumatic brain injury can result in changes in brain chemistry and structure, thereby impacting mood and behaviour. For example, individuals with brain injury may exhibit impulsive behaviour, face difficulties with identifying and regulating emotions, and have an impaired sense of judgement.


Research has also found a hereditary component to some types of maladaptive behaviours. Genetics can contribute to an individual’s vulnerability to specific mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.

Studies have identified specific genes linked to the development of mental health conditions and maladaptive behaviours. For instance, research shows that the serotonin transporter gene plays a role in developing anxiety and depression. Impulsivity and risk-taking behaviours are habits that occur due to other genes.

In addition to specific genes, family history also plays a significant role. Children who have a parent with a history of maladaptive behaviours are at a higher risk of developing similar patterns of behaviour. This may be due to a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. Ultimately, a complex interplay of various factors shapes an individual’s behaviour.

Maladaptive Behaviour Examples


Also known as self-injury, self-harm is where an individual intentionally causes physical harm to their own body. Self-harm as a maladaptive behaviour can take many forms, including cutting, burning, biting, or hitting themselves. Severe physical and mental health consequences result from this type of behaviour; hence it is maladaptive. People who self-harm often use it as a way to release their pent-up emotional energy or to punish themselves for perceived mistakes. 

Self-harm is not the same as suicide, although the behaviour can increase the risk of suicidal ideations. In fact, a study also found that individuals who self-harm use avoidance as a coping mechanism. They hurt themselves secretly, making it difficult for loved ones to understand what’s happening. They may hide their scars and bruises, and some may not even realise that their behaviour is harmful.

While it may provide a temporary distraction, self-harm can quickly become a harmful and addictive behaviour that is difficult to break.

The consequences of self-harm include:

  • Physical health problems: Self-harm can result in physical injuries, infections, and scarring.

  • Mental health problems: Self-harm can worsen existing mental health conditions and lead to new ones, such as depression, anxiety, and panic disorders.

  • Stigma and shame: Individuals who self-harm may feel shame or embarrassment about their behaviour. These feelings force them to socially isolate themselves and lead to a breakdown in their relationships.
  • Difficulty stopping: Self-harm can be difficult to control, as they may feel addicted to the relief it provides. 

If you or someone you know is hurting themselves, it is crucial to reach out for help. This can include talking to a trusted friend or family member, seeing a professional therapist, or reaching out to a crisis helpline.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are a form of maladaptive behaviour that can have severe and long-lasting effects on a person’s physical and mental health. They transpire when someone has abnormal eating habits like overeating, getting rid of the food they’ve eaten, or only eating very little. Eating disorders can develop due to a desire to be thin, societal pressure to conform to a particular body type or underlying mental health conditions.

Individuals with eating disorders suffer from low self-esteem, perfectionism, and a negative body image. They may also have a history of childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. The most common eating disorders among teenagers and young adults are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Usually, all these disorders involve abnormal eating patterns and unhealthy relationships with food.

Eating disorders can quickly spiral out of control, leading to severe physical and emotional consequences. These include malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, depression, anxiety, cardiovascular issues, and suicide. Individuals suffering from eating disorders may require professional help and support to rekindle a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.

Substance abuse 

Substance abuse is a form of maladaptive behaviour. It refers to the excessive or repeated use of drugs or alcohol to cope, despite its negative consequences. It often starts as a way for individuals to cope with stress, anxiety, or other emotional difficulties. However, it can quickly become a full-blown addiction. Over time, individuals become dependent on the substance to regulate their mood, leading to a destructive pattern of use.

Substance abuse can take many forms, including excessive drinking, drug abuse, and even over-the-counter medication abuse. The negative impact of substance abuse can be far-reaching. It causes damage to the brain and body, increases the risk of accidents and injuries, and affects relationships, work, and personal life. It is also associated with several mental health conditions like depression and bipolar disorder.

Treating substance abuse requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses both the addiction and the underlying emotional issues. Effective treatment includes therapy, support groups, and medication-assisted treatment. Professional psychotherapists at TYHO can help individuals regain control over their substance abuse and develop healthy coping skills. With the right help, it is possible for individuals to overcome their addiction and build a happier and healthier life.

How Do You Know if You Have Maladaptive Behaviour?

Recognising the signs of maladaptive behaviour is the first step in seeking help. If you find yourself engaging in behaviours that interfere with your daily life or the lives of those around you, it may be time to seek professional help.

Some common signs include:

  • engaging in self-sabotaging behaviours;

  • having an unhealthy relationship with food;

  • addiction to drugs, alcohol, or other substances;
  • sexual dysfunctions or compulsions;

  • fantasy-prone behaviour, such as daydreaming excessively;

  • impulsive or irrational behaviour;
  • difficulty managing and regulating emotions; and

  • withdrawing from friends and family.

It can be hard to acknowledge that your behaviour may be maladaptive, but seeking help is an essential step towards healing and recovery. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and notice changes in your eating habits, it’s a good idea to reach out for help. A mental health professional, like a counsellor or psychologist, can help you understand your habits and thought patterns, and guide you as you develop the tools you need to cope with them healthily.

How Do You Deal with Maladaptive Behaviours?

Breaking the cycle of maladaptive behaviours may not be an easy feat, especially if they have become habitual over time. When it comes to dealing with life’s challenges, it’s helpful to find healthy ways to manage stress and negative emotions.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Here are some alternative strategies that you can try out and see what works best for you: 

An alternative to engaging in maladaptive behaviour would be working out physically.


Physical activity can be a great way to relieve stress and boost your mood. Whether it’s going for a run or playing a sport, find something you enjoy. The key is to make it a part of your daily routine.


Practising mindfulness can help you be more present and aware of the moment. People often do this to reduce stress and improve their overall wellbeing. Another fun way to approach mindfulness is to involve your friend or partner in it! Meditating, journaling, or simply taking deep breaths with a loved one can be incredibly peaceful.

Connecting with others

Social support is also a key to taking care of our mental health. Try spending time with friends and family, signing up for a club, or volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about. It is always so much fun to explore our unique needs and interests.

Hobbies and interests

People often take up various hobbies to relieve stress and bring back joy into their lives. It doesn’t have to be anything huge; something as simple as collecting rocks or reading books can uplift your mood.

Mind-body therapies

With guided therapies like yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture, you may feel deeply relaxed. It is also a great way to incorporate physical movement every day.

Remember, what works for one individual may not always work for another. The idea is to find healthy ways to cope with challenges and take care of your emotional wellbeing. Keep trying different things until you figure out what helps you the best!


In conclusion, maladaptive behaviours can drastically impact one’s life and the lives of people around them. However, with the proper support and treatment, individuals can overcome these behaviours and lead fulfilling lives.

Online therapy has become a popular option for those seeking help for maladaptive behaviour. The convenience and privacy of receiving treatment from the comfort of one’s home have made it easier for individuals to seek help and overcome challenges. Furthermore, online therapy in Singapore and all over the world is also accessible for those who live in remote areas or have limited access to traditional therapy services.

Don’t be afraid to seek help; a support system is available for you right here. Seeking help is a courageous step towards recovery and a brighter future.

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