Maladaptive Behavior and Addiction: Breaking the Cycle

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When dealing with unpleasant emotions or circumstances, we all sometimes struggle to face things head-on. Avoidance, anger, or other similar reactions are all perfectly ordinary. However, sometimes our reactions to situations and feelings don’t contribute to solving the problem. Instead, they may make things worse. This is what’s known as “maladaptive behavior.” 

Put another way, “maladaptive behavior” is behavior that inhibits your ability adapt to and overcome life’s hurdles. Among these behaviors is the problem known as addiction.

Luckily, there are proven ways to overcome maladaptive behaviors through therapy, medication, and other evidence-based strategies. Below, we’ll discuss the relationship between maladaptive behavior and addiction, and what you can do about it.

What is Maladaptive Behavior?

woman drinking beer maladaptive behavior
Photo by hp koch on Unsplash

Maladaptive behavior is acting or reacting in a way that prevents you from adapting to a given situation. This is often done to avoid pain or discomfort associated with change or trauma. It is also frequently linked to anxiety, and can contribute to the maintenance of generalized anxiety disorder.

Substance use is a common example of maladaptive behavior. Using drugs or alcohol can help some people feel that they’re preventing, avoiding, or controlling difficult circumstances.

The reality, however, is that when you practice maladaptive behavior you’re not giving yourself the necessary space to reach a real solution. This can create worse problems down the road, leading to a difficult cycle.

Different Types of Maladaptive Behavior

Aside from addiction, examples of maladaptive behavior include:

  • Anger
  • Withdrawal
  • Avoidance
  • Self-harm
  • Passive-aggressiveness

For example, alcohol use as a coping mechanism could be classified as a form of avoidance behavior. It might offer you temporary relief from overwhelming emotions in the moment, without giving you a chance to deal with them.

Why (and How) Maladaptive Behaviors Develop

If you’ve struggled with mental health in the past (particularly with anxiety), you may have developed maladaptive behaviors as coping mechanisms. This is especially likely if you haven’t had the chance to learn healthy alternatives.

For example, many people brought up in high-stress environments need to figure out how to function, quickly. If they don’t have the right tools, support, or guidance on hand, they may develop some ways of coping that seem effective in the moment, but actually hurt them in the big picture. Stress drinking is a common example of this.

Substance use disorder is closely tied to maladaptive anxiety—that is, excessive anxiety for what a situation calls for. When a person struggles with this issue, turning to alcohol or drugs may feel like an effective way to manage the discomfort and stress. But reliance on this behavior—often referred to as self-medication—is a slippery slope towards addiction.

All in all, maladaptive behaviors manifest when you feel bad and just want to feel better. The problem is that they don’t support you in being healthy and happy in the long run.

Read More: Alcohol and Mental Health

Dangers of Maladaptive Behavior

When you choose maladaptive behavior to cope with life’s challenges, you may feel a sense of relief at first—but that feeling doesn’t last long.

Often, if you don’t address problems in a healthy and timely way, they only get worse. This is one of the dangers of maladaptive behavior. Issues at work, relationship troubles, and even your own negative emotions tend to snowball if you don’t deal with them when they come up.

Additionally, research suggests that maladaptive behaviors and beliefs may lead to the maintenance of social anxiety disorder and depression. All in all, maladaptive behavior can lead an individual to feel trapped in the very same circumstances they were trying to avoid, without a clear pathway out.

When Addiction Becomes a Coping Mechanism

woman holding glass maladaptive behavior
Photo by Yoab Anderson on Unsplash

So, what about addiction as a maladaptive behavior?

Substance abuse is a common way to cope with negative emotions or stressful situations. In fact, studies show that maladaptive patterns in one’s youth are linked to higher addiction potential later in life.

Drinking alcohol is one way to achieve temporary relief from stress. Since alcohol can actually increase the release of stress hormones, this may make the problem feel worse the following day. And since alcohol also stimulates the reward center in your brain, you may feel inclined to drink again to continue pushing these feelings away.

Since avoiding problems tends to make them worse, drinking to cope can turn into a vicious cycle that is hard to get free of. Not only are you learning maladaptive behavior by drinking, your body’s chemistry can also adapt to this behavior, and reinforce it.

Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this issue. With the right support, and the right tools, it’s possible to unlearn addiction as a maladaptive behavior.

What You Can Do

If you’re struggling with alcohol or drug abuse as a coping mechanism, here are some strategies you can try that may help.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) as part of a recovery plan is a proven way to help treat substance use disorders. CBT helps people understand their own negative thinking patterns, and replace them with more positive ones. This often includes skill development that improves a person’s ability to adjust to life’s challenges—the opposite of maladaptive behavior!

Recovery coaching, including CBT-related techniques, is now available online.


Mindfulness is another powerful tool for managing anxiety and other mental health issues. Stress is a common drinking trigger—and the stress-reducing effects of mindfulness have proven helpful in treating substance use disorder in multiple studies.


Linked to mindfulness, a meditation practice can also help people in recovery adapt to and manage the challenges of quitting substance abuse. Regular meditation can teach you to reel yourself in when facing destructive thought patterns, and be less fearful of life’s challenges.


While starting a regular exercise habit can feel intimidating at first, studies show it can increase happiness and give you a flood of endorphins. This can help you maintain clarity if you’re struggling with negative thinking.

Overall, finding strategies that work for you, and sticking with them, will go a long way towards helping you replace maladaptive behaviors—including addiction. And if you need more support, there are modern, convenient treatment methods out there that can help.

Support for Maladaptive Behavior and Addiction

If you’re struggling with alcohol use as a maladaptive behavior, it can be tough to tackle it on your own. That’s why online treatment can make a huge difference. Rather than putting your life on hold, or traveling long distances to get the support you need, you can now access help from an app on your smartphone.

Ria Health’s program gives you weekly meetings with recovery coaches trained in cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness techniques. You’ll also get expert medical support, access to anti-craving medications, digital tracking tools, and much more—all to help you reign in your alcohol dependence while overcoming maladaptive behavior.

Best of all, our program is designed to be affordable, and is covered by many major insurance plans.

Schedule a call with a Ria Health team member today, or learn more about how it works.

Have questions about online alcohol treatment?

or call (800) 504-5360

Written By:
Alicia Schultz
Alicia is a Minnesota-based freelancer who writes for Ria Health and various other brands in the health and wellness space. Beyond addiction and recovery, she also covers topics relating to general well-being, mindfulness, fitness, mental health, and more. When she’s not writing, you can find her relaxing with her three-legged cat, trying new workout routines, and spending time with her loved ones.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.

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