Maladaptive Behavior and Anxiety: What's the Connection?

Discover the consequences of maladaptive behavior and how to better cope with anxiety here.

Table of Contents

What Is Maladaptive Behavior?

A maladaptive behavior is a response that prevents the ability to adjust to situations. Often, these behaviors arise from difficulties managing challenging circumstances. Trauma, domestic abuse, illness, or a significant life change are all examples that could trigger maladaptive behavior.

There are many reasons why people adopt these behaviors, and they can be challenging to overcome. Fortunately, these behaviors can be replaced with healthier, more productive ones.

Maladaptive Behavior

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Who Uses Maladaptive Responses?

These types of behaviors are not restricted to a particular age group or other demographic. Anyone can encounter situations where they do not want or know how to confront certain people, places, or events. These situations commonly cause people to develop these behaviors as a coping tool.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Maladaptive Behavior?

Maladaptive behaviors can affect emotional and physical health, personal relationships, and well-being. The signs and symptoms are not always easy to spot, so it’s important to familiarize oneself with common patterns and indications. The following are examples:

  • Avoiding people, places, or situations that can cause unpleasant feelings or stress
  • Replacing real-life interactions and challenges with daydreaming or fantasy
  • Internalizing true thoughts and emotions rather than asserting them
  • Engaging in self-harming behaviors to manage painful emotions
  • Mood swings and angry outbursts
  • Self-medicating (using drugs or alcohol to manage emotions, such as anxiety and panic)
  • Social withdrawal and avoidance of situations that cause stress

Types of Maladaptive Behavior

These behaviors generally fall into four categories:

Avoidance Behaviors

Avoidance behaviors are actions or activities to avoid situations that may produce anxiety. Examples include not wanting to attend social events, using substances to reduce anxious feelings, or not following through with plans. Avoidance may also look like trying not to bring attention to oneself.

Passive aggression is another type of avoidance behavior. Someone who is passive-aggressive avoids expressing genuine emotions. They choose to indirectly express their feelings to sidestep conflict, confrontation, or rejection.

Safety Behaviors

Safety behaviors are actions used to reduce the potential for public embarrassment. These actions are also known as partial avoidance behaviors, as they do not involve avoiding the situation altogether. Instead, safety behaviors are active attempts to reduce one’s level of engagement. Common examples include:
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Minimizing feelings to avoid confrontation
  • Taking on responsibilities at social functions that reduce interactions with others
  • Choosing clothing that reduces attention


Anger is a normal emotion; however, excessive anger can hinder well-being. Individuals who are consistently angry may use anger as a maladaptive coping tool. These people may have trouble controlling their anger or find relief in expressing angry emotions.


Self-harm is a dangerous behavior. Those who engage in this behavior aim to reduce the intensity of their emotions. Someone who self-harms may cut, burn, hit, or injure themselves in some way.

This behavior can be seen more often in adolescents, as they are more susceptible to risky behavior and trouble expressing emotions. Research indicates that 17% of adolescents engage in self-harm at least once. 1

Causes of Maladaptive Behavior

There are many reasons why someone may develop unhelpful patterns. For instance, maladaptive behavior can stem from mental health conditions and trauma.

Anxiety Disorders

People with anxiety typically develop avoidance behaviors to prevent encountering stressful situations. Avoidance is one of the most significant characteristics of many anxiety disorders. For instance, specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder are driven by avoiding people, places, and things. 2

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

People with autism may have increased difficulty expressing their emotions. This can lead to an unwillingness to communicate, aggression, self-harm, and other externalizing behaviors. One study found that adaptability and severity of problem behaviors were inversely correlated in patients with ASD. So, as the severity of a problem behavior increased, the ability to cope and adapt decreased. 3

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder symptoms can increase a person’s willingness to avoid situations. As a result, avoidance is a common maladaptive coping tool among those with this disorder. For example, they will go out of their way to avoid situations that trigger panic. This can be a significant challenge for someone with various types of phobias.

Personality Disorders

People with personality disorders may use maladaptive coping behaviors to manage triggers. For example, avoidant personality disorder is associated with shyness, sensitivity, and social withdrawal. These traits can cause a person to develop avoidance and safety behaviors. Borderline personality disorder can cause aggression and paranoia, leading to such behaviors like anger and self-harm.


Studies suggest that trauma, especially during childhood, can induce harmful behaviors. Researchers found a connection between childhood sexual abuse and disrupted reinforcement learning, self-harm, and suicidal behavior. 4

Impact of Maladaptive Behavior

Using maladaptive behaviors may seem effective and beneficial in the short term. Yet, it is crucial to remember that they are harmful in the long run. More often than not, these behaviors lead to new or worsened problems, such as:

  • Challenges with personal and social relationships
  • Increased fear of social and other triggering situations
  • Reduced social skills
  • Challenges being assertive
  • Difficulties achieving employment goals
  • New or worsening substance abuse issues

What Is the Connection Between Maladaptive Behavior and Anxiety?

Anxiety generally acts as a driving force for maladaptive behavior. For example, avoidance is a common unhealthy coping tool to prevent or reduce anxiety symptoms. Safety behavior is another anxiety-induced behavior. Those with social anxiety disorder may rely on safety behaviors to avoid stressful situations.

While behaviors like avoidance may seem like plausible solutions, they are harmful in the long term. This is because they only offer short-term relief. It is not uncommon for maladaptive coping to increase anxiety symptoms over time.

Coping With These Types of Behaviors

As noted above, this type of behavior is a short-term solution. Over time, they often lead to worsening anxiety. Seeking help from a treatment provider can teach you about adaptive behaviors. These are coping skills that can help change how people look at particular situations. They can also improve the ability to engage with others. Examples of adaptive behaviors may involve:

  • Improving social skills
  • Learning how to take personal responsibility
  • Creating routines
  • Engaging in self-care
  • Choosing activities that will improve physical and emotional health
  • Learning new skills that improve comfort and reduce anxiety in social situations
  • Learning how to regulate emotions
Maladaptive Behavior

What Are the Treatment Methods for Maladaptive Behavior?

Maladaptive behaviors can interfere with obligations and the ability to manage anxiety and social stressors. When this occurs, it may be beneficial to seek treatment. Mental health professionals can help identify and change unhealthy behaviors. They provide healthier coping mechanisms and teach valuable skills to improve everyday life. Common treatment methods include:

  • Psychotherapy and counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, addiction counseling, and trauma therapy
  • Relaxation and stress management education
  • Medications, such as anti-anxiety medications

Get Treatment for Maladaptive Behaviors at Profound Treatment

Maladaptive behaviors prevent changes that could improve emotional and social well-being. While seemingly harmless, withdrawal, avoidance, and passive-aggression are examples of common unhealthy behaviors. At Profound Treatment, our experienced team will work with you to identify and change your behaviors. You will learn healthy coping skills and techniques to manage stress and anxiety.

We understand that stressful situations are not always avoidable. Without the right tools to cope with and manage anxiety, triggers can take over your daily life. That is why we provide a variety of treatment options to address your unique needs. Some examples include individual and group therapy, holistic treatments, and medication-assisted treatment.

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