Addictions, Coping skills

Trigger Warning

Self Harm and Other Maladaptive Coping Strategies

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Katie Donahoo

Coping skills are anything that helps you to feel clam, relaxed and brings you peace. If you read through previous posts I’ve written you will all kinds of positive, healthy strategies to help you when you are struggling. But what happens when the things you think are bringing you calm are actually hurting you? In this article you learn what maladaptive coping strategies are, how to recognize them in yourself and others, and what to do if you notice you or a loved one are using them. So lets get into it.

Maladaptive coping skills are harmful behaviors people use to cope with emotional distress. While these behaviors often provide immediate reduction in symptoms the effects are not long lasting and over time cause an increase in distress, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms. Maladaptive strategies are often learned through social influence, parental modeling, or experimentation in youth. When a person is raised in a toxic household where the adults use maladaptive coping strategies to deal with their distress it impresses upon the youth that this is how you deal with your problems. Some youth are not exposed to healthy coping alternatives and therefore rely on the maladaptive strategies to ease their burden. Others still experiment with maladaptive strategies in teen years whether from peer advice or modeling behaviors seen by friends and peers. Adults can fall into maladaptive coping patterns as well.

Maladaptive coping comes in many forms. The use of drugs and alcohol often beginning as a way to deal with stress from either daily life or a significant event. Smoking, tobacco use, vaping to manage stress is another substance use example. Self harm behaviors such as cutting, burning, or hair pulling are maladaptive coping strategies. Lesser known maladaptive strategies include gambling, emotional numbing, and social withdraw. Often, maladaptive coping goes undetected because the strategy itself is a socially acceptable behavior. Going to the bar to burn off steam after a long day at work or playing a few hands of poker with the fellas. Taking smoke breaks at work or home to get away from the hub-bub indoors. Behaviors such as pinching, pulling, or picking may even go unnoticed by the individual until commented on by a loved one.

If you are uncertain if your engagement in some of the activities listed is simply social engagement or maladaptive coping you can ask yourself the following questions:

Does engaging in this activity consume my thinking? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about when, where, or how you will be able to engage in this behavior or activity again? Is what I think about first think about in the morning? Is it on my mind most of the day? Do I spend a lot time trying to plan or acquire the things I need to engage in this behavior again? Spending large quantities of time thinking about or actively trying to engage in the behavior again is an indicator you are engaging in an unhealthy or maladaptive way.

Am I hiding it from others? Do my loved ones know I do this? Do they partake in this behavior with me or do I engage in this alone? Engaging in behaviors in secret is a sign you are utilizing the behavior in a maladaptive way.

Do I feel guilt or shame after engaging in the behavior? When we partake in behavior in a maladaptive way we often feel negative emotions about our use of the behavior. Your use of a healthy coping strategy would leaving you feeling better, confident, and proud.

Am I only engaging in this behavior when I am alone? Isolation during maladaptive coping is common. If you wouldn’t engage in the behavior in front of your support system it’s likely because you have an intuitive sense that the behavior is maladaptive in nature. If you are isolating from your supports even when not engaging in the behavior it could be because your attempts at coping are not effective.

Maladaptive coping strategies will leave you feeling worse over time because they do not deal with the root cause of your distress. In fact, maladaptive coping will increase your symptoms due to the shame, guilt, embarrassment, and other depressive or anxious symptoms perpetuated by the strategy itself. Alcohol is a depressant. If you use it to numb or decrease your stress it will likely work initially. Over time you will find yourself feeling more and more anxious and stressed as you continue to use alcohol to cope. Maladaptive coping doesn’t work long term, it doesn’t create positive change in your behavior, and doesn’t address the root cause of your distress.

If you or a loved one are engaging in any of the strategies mentioned above as ways to deal with emotional upset, stress, or known mental health issues such as anxiety or depression there is hope. Please please please reach out for help. Somebody loves you, help is available. Crisis hotlines are for all kinds of crisis. You do NOT have to be suicidal to call a crisis line. Text 988 if you are in crisis.

If you are concerned for a loved one do not wait to address the elephant in the room. Learning new strategies and changing behavior patterns can be difficult. The person may have been using their maladaptive strategies for a very long time. Confront them immediately with love and support. Let them know that you know what they are doing and you are there to help. Whether for a loved one or for yourself seek professional support to gain healthy, effective strategies as soon as possible. Healing is possible, help is available.

Crisis Text Line: 988

Crisis Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8522