Maladaptive Behavior & Alcohol Use: What’s the Link?

What is Maladaptive Behavior?

‘Maladaptive’ is defined as not adjusting adequately to a new environment or difficult situation. Maladaptive behaviors are behaviors individuals use to avoid confronting environmental or situational stressors. These  behaviors actively inhibit someone’s ability to  learn, adjust, and manage the environment or the society they live in. People often turn to maladaptive behaviors when a stressor or consequence feels too overwhelming to handle.

Substance use is a common maladaptive behavior, and is often used to avoid a problem instead of addressing the underlying issue. Maladaptive behaviors such as alcohol use are not moral failings. Oftentimes people turn to these habits as a way of coping with life’s challenges in the absence of better tools and guidance. With time and support, you can identify your own maladaptive behavior and replace it with healthier forms of coping. Plus, you’ll feel more prepared to navigate life’s ups and downs with confidence in your own problem-solving abilities.

What Causes Maladaptive Behavior?

There are many different ways maladaptive behaviors form. They can be life-long habits that start at a young age, such as biting nails or scratching oneself when feeling anxious, or behaviors that started after a major life change, such as losing a job or moving to a new location. It can also stem from major illnesses like arthritis and lung disease, or traumatic events such as divorce or recovering from a surgery. Whether a habit began in childhood or after a major life event, it can be hard to break maladaptive behaviors because of how they affect the brain. Most maladaptive behaviors provide some form of ‘reward,’ which incentives the brain to repeat the action in a future stressful situation. For example, drinking alcohol releases dopamine in the brain, which over time, can make your brain associate drinking with pleasure and relief.  

While maladaptive behaviors often provide short-term relief, they don’t solve or heal the underlying issue. Eventually, the problems we are using maladaptive behaviors to avoid can become more severe, and can no longer be ignored. Plus, turning to maladaptive habits for relief can lead to various health consequences. Self-medicating with alcohol, for example, can cause someone to develop alcohol use disorder and other consequences. The impact of maladaptive behavior, such as relationship problems or physical side effects, can further increase stress, creating an unhealthy cycle. However, understanding maladaptive behavior is a productive step toward making a change.

Types of Maladaptive Behavior

In addition to our example of unhealthy alcohol use, here are some other forms of maladaptive behavior:

  • Avoiding situations that are unpleasant and stressful
  • Masking emotions or opinions to avoid conflicts
  • Anger outbursts, such as throwing things, yelling, and breaking things
  • Physically harming oneself or others
  • Unhealthy use of other drugs and substances 

If you identify with these experiences, you are not alone. These behaviors can be hard to recognize as maladaptive on your own. Working with a therapist can help you identify which habits aren’t serving you, and empower you to build more effective coping mechanisms. At Monument, you can work with a therapist specialized in helping people move on from alcohol-related maladaptive behavior in online alcohol therapy.

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Alcohol Use as a Maladaptive Behavior

Drinking alcohol is a very common form of maladaptive behavior. It can temporarily numb difficult emotions and distract from distressing situations. In the long term, however, using alcohol as a coping mechanism can lead to unhealthy drinking habits and exacerbate anxiety and depression, among other health consequences.

Examples of Maladaptive Alcohol Use

Generally, when alcohol is used as a way of soothing or distracting from an unwanted emotion or situation, it’s become a maladaptive behavior. This could look like using alcohol as a means of coping with any of the following:

  • Stress brought on by relationships, job, physical and mental health, etc.
  • Situations that create anxiety
  • Boredom or monotonous routines
  • Chronic pain
  • Painful past experiences and trauma 

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Risks of Maladaptive Alcohol Use

As mentioned above, unhealthy alcohol use can lead to various consequences in many areas. These are just a few examples: 

Increased Anxiety During Difficult Situations 

A lot of people use alcohol to cope with social anxiety and other uncomfortable situations and emotions. This can have a snowball effect. The more you avoid difficult situations, the more likely you are to fear them. Facing these situations head on can actually minimize anxiety in the long run. 

Strained Personal Relationships and Social Life

Excessive alcohol use often harms relationships with loved ones. The “chemical romance” between an individual and alcohol can cause them to self-isolate, or get defensive when confronted by a loved one about their drinking. 

Professional Ramifications

Alcohol use disorder is linked to over 232 million missed work days each year. Not being able to function well at work due to hangovers, or often calling in sick, can affect job promotion opportunities and even put employment at risk.

"what we think makes us feel better vs what actually makes us feel better: drinking alcohol vs processing emotions. Staying in our comfort zone vs trying new things. Having lots and lots of friends vs nurturing close relationships. Escaping with screen time vs getting fresh air. Avoiding difficult conversations vs asking for support."

Treating Maladaptive Behavior and Alcohol Use 

Fortunately, when maladaptive behaviors are identified, they can be replaced with more productive ones. If you think maladaptive behaviors may be holding you back from your happiest and healthiest life, seeking professional support is an excellent next step. Here are some treatment options for those navigating maladaptive behavior: 

Therapy 

Working with a therapist is a great way to change maladaptive behaviors into adaptive ones. A therapist can help an individual change the underlying thought patterns that contribute to maladaptive behaviors and build healthier coping mechanisms.

Medication

Medication is another way to help individuals regain control and balance, specifically when it comes to alcohol use. If someone is using alcohol to cope, medication to stop drinking can reduce alcohol cravings, making it easier to start working on building alternative habits. 

Meditation

Meditation is one of the most helpful “adaptive behaviors” you can add to your toolkit. It can help you calm your mind and adjust to your present circumstances. Learning how to meditate enhances the ability for emotional regulation, improves resiliency, promotes a positive outlook, and cultivates personal well-being.  

Maladaptive behavior isn’t something to be ashamed of. We all are doing our best with the circumstances we are given. Acknowledging unhealthy habits and working to adjust maladaptive behavior is an incredible step that leads to an overall healthier and happier life. You don’t have to do it alone. The physicians and therapists on the Monument platform are here to provide guidance, relief, and reassurance. We’re here for you.

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Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Catherine ChuaDr. Chua has a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in the State of New York. She is trained in several modalities, including Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. She is also certified in Psychological first Aid and Advanced Nutritional and Integrative Mental Medicine for Mental Health Professionals. Having worked in several mental health clinics and having her own private practice, she utilizes a collaborative and supportive approach to help clients make sustainable changes that is tailored to each client’s need and goals. She has developed a set of coping skills and techniques that clients find helpful. She is a strong believer in the harm reduction model and focus on psychoeducation and strengthening the client's coping strategies.