Updated: Oct 27
When was the last time you were blindsided by stress or struggled to handle an intensely negative experience? No matter how prepared you are, life has plenty of challenges that can push you off balance. So it's important to understand how to use helpful coping strategies (and avoid harmful ones) in order to lead the life you want.
For instance, you might cope with the stress of losing your job by calling a friend and venting about the situation, or you might instead cope by consuming alcohol.
Those are certainly coping strategies, but are they the best ones for you?
Maladaptive vs. Adaptive coping strategies
Maladaptive coping strategies are ones that are ineffective, harmful, or otherwise counterproductive in addressing the demands or stressors you face. They might offer you short-term relief but are counterproductive in the long term and ultimately make matters worse.
Adaptive coping strategies are the ones that are effective, beneficial, and more likely to produce long-term positive outcomes when dealing with challenges or stressors. They can help you through a combination of personal growth, optimism, solution-focused actions, creativity, flexibility, and other mechanisms.
Here is an example of how maladaptive and adaptive coping strategies can work in a real-life situation:
Bruce recently got promoted and was struggling to adapt to the added responsibilities this entailed.
He noticed that, to deal with this stressor, he was spending much more time scrolling through social media during work hours and was avoiding his manager’s emails.
Perceived benefits and costs of maladaptive strategies
He recognized that these maladaptive coping strategies were rooted in a desire to escape, and while they provided the benefit of relieving his anxiety for a moment (by distracting him from his worries), they came with the long-term cost of reducing his chance of professional success as well as his relationships with his team members.
He decided that the adaptive coping strategy of seeking out more information about how he'd be evaluated in his new role (both by doing some research on his own and by asking his manager for guidance) would be useful both for relieving his immediate anxiety and for helping him develop professionally.
Maladaptive coping strategies tend to be rooted in avoidance, since most of them orient you away from the stressor (or its emotional effects) rather than toward it.
Of course, distraction can be a helpful coping strategy in dealing with certain kinds of distress, but it is best in moderation and in an appropriate context (e.g., when dealing with something minor that is not a recurring issue).
For example, taking work breaks when you're experiencing work stress can be healthy and help you look at problems from a fresh perspective. But taking breaks excessively (and, in doing so, avoiding doing important work that you find stressful) may be an unhealthy avoidance strategy.
It surely can feel helpful in the short term (since you might feel better immediately) but the benefits are short-term, and the problem may grow long-term.
On the other hand, adaptive coping strategies help you effectively face your problems and the emotional distress they may cause, without simply avoiding them in exchange for brief relief in the short-term. They may include problem-solving, gathering more information, accepting what can't be changed, practicing self-care habits, relaxation exercises, or using your support network.
Shifting to an adaptive coping strategy:
What does shifting towards adaptive coping strategies look like in practice?
Choosing a strategy that works for you comes down to understanding your unique situation. Here are some ideas:
If you tend to feel helpless or avoid your problems, consider ways you could problem solve: ask for guidance, plan and strategize, look for the root cause, or seek out new information and additional resources. It may be helpful to ask a trusted friend or loved one to do this with you.
If you tend to think a lot about how your current situation compares to how things could have been you may find it helpful adopt a strategy aimed to change your perspective: use humor, practice acceptance, practice gratitude, look for silver linings (even in unfortunate situations), or frame your situation as a way to grow emotionally.
If you tend to self-isolate, consider ways you can get emotional support: make an effort to call loved ones, socialize with friends, talk to a counselor, or practice communicating effectively.
If you tend to use unhealthy self-soothing tactics (e.g., avoidance of something stressful but valuable, substance abuse, or excessive spending), you may find it valuable to seek treatment, such as exposure therapy for anxiety, or substance abuse treatment. You also may find it valuable to practice regular self-care by taking time to do healthy things you enjoy, like hobbies, journaling, walking outside, or physical activity.
If your strategies tend to involve avoiding responsibility (e.g., avoiding certain types of work because you don't feel you are good enough to do it) you may find it useful to engage in adaptive strategies related to self-reliance (e.g., signing up for a online course to develop the skills you need to perform better at your job)
Nearly everyone engages in at least some unhealthy coping strategies at times. But you can, over time, rely more on healthy strategies and use unhealthy ones less.
How can you actually start using healthy strategies?
Suppose that you've identified an unhealthy coping strategy, and you're ready to replace it with a healthier one. What's the next step?
It can be helpful to develop a straightforward rule like…
When situation X occurs, I'll strategy B (instead of strategy A).
Rules like this are sometimes called "implementation intentions". Once you've set an intention to do this new behavior in these situations, it can be helpful to write it down. Or you can use our Program Yourself To Improve Your Life tool to help you set such intentions.
Here are some examples of rules you might create:
When facing a tight deadline at work -> review your time management and prioritization.
When experiencing anxiety before a public speaking engagement -> practice relaxation techniques.
When feeling overwhelmed by a heavy workload -> engage in self-care and plan short restorative breaks.
If you stick with one of these strategies long enough, eventually it will become second nature to you to use it in the planned situation.
If you have some extra time today, we encourage you to make a plan for yourself using our free, interactive, and research-based tool "Replace Unhelpful Coping Strategies." It will walk you through the process of identifying and replacing your maladaptive coping strategies with adaptive ones.