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  • Katy Ainslie-Wallace, LPC-IT, SAC-IT

"Adaptive" vs. "Maladaptive" Coping: An Example from the Life of a Therapist

Recently, I had a situation where a loved one and I butted heads. Pretty hard. The event wasn’t pretty, and the effects of it are going to have long-term effects on our relationship and how we proceed going forward. As is common for most of us, I have been replaying the scene in my head, and coming up with all the other ways things could have happened.

I should have said this. I should have done that. I should have, I should have...etc.

You get the point. Once I accepted that what has happened has happened, I began to look at why it turned out this way.

Why did I react the way I did? Why did she react the way she did?

That’s when a good, old grad school term smacked me in the face: maladaptive coping skills.

Most of us, if not all, have heard about coping skills: They are what we do to manage our emotions in the moment. Some have developed coping skills that are adaptive and help during stressful times. Perhaps they go to their support system to talk about things. Some people go for a run, do yoga, or exercise to relieve their stress. Other examples of adaptive coping skills are by solving the problem, using humor, taking a break or pausing before reacting, or even just being mindful in the moment. All of these are examples of things we can do that don’t make the event worse. We aren’t harming anyone else, nor ourselves, by using these skills.

However, sometimes we develop maladaptive coping skills. Maladaptive skills are usually counterproductive or cause negative consequences. They often work in the short term, but in the grand scheme of things cause trouble. Some examples of maladaptive coping are: avoiding, drinking, drugs, binging on foods that we find comfort in, impulsive decisions, and in some cases, self-harm.

How often have we heard of someone (maybe ourselves) say, “I've had the shittiest day. I’m going to get totally drunk.” Or perhaps we gobble down that pint of oh-so-delicious ice cream after a fight with someone. Most of these choices we make can help us feel better for a hot second, but not much more than that. After we have a night of binge drinking, we experience the mother of all hangover’s the next day. After we eat that pint of ice cream the guilt may settle in.

So how do you cope when life smacks you in the face? Do you face it head on, or do you avoid having to deal with it? Do you stew a bit and then let it go, or do you ruminate about it? Do you go for a long walk/run, or do you sit in front of the TV and indulge in some comfort food?

Perhaps you do it all. No one is saying there is perfection. Sometimes life calls for a pint of Culver’s Flavor of the Day. And some days it calls for a long walk in the sun. But when you lean towards maladaptive coping more often than not, and there are more and more negative consequences in your life, it may be time to take a moment to notice, reflect, and then move forward.

So, back to my issue… (c’mon, I’m human too, you know!) The person I butted heads with is someone I love. Their choice makes sense if I look at how they have learned to cope with life. They encounter stress, and they choose to drink to not feel (aka “numbing”). And while this caused a negative consequence for not only them, but my relationship with them…I can’t control what they do. All I can control is what I do, and that is what I’m working on now.

My maladaptive coping skill is to avoid. It’s too hard to deal with; it hurts too much. I have very little control of others, therefore I don’t know what to do. And I also enjoy ice cream (have you noticed that theme?). So, my work has been around my avoidance and not eliminating people from my life because I don’t agree with what they do, or have done to me. My adaptive coping skill is to create boundaries that keep me safe, and also maintain that relationship. That relationship may change and will look different, but it will also be more sustainable. As for the ice cream…I’m working on not eating the whole pint...

Take care,



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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]

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