Chronic Stress and Maladaptive coping

What is it?

chronic stress can lead to maladaptive coping strategies


Well, the term 'maladaptive coping,' tends to be used by mental health professionals when describing the negative behaviours we undertake,  in order to cope with or survive an experience.  They often relate to conditions such as anxiety, depression and so on.  An example, might be coping with an anxiety condition through drinking alcohol to excess.  The benefits of the relief from the constant tension are far outweighed by the damage that excessive drinking can do.  Hence the term 'mal' -adaptive rather than 'adaptive.'  The adaptive part refers to action we take to adapt to conditions, in order to ensure ongoing survival. The 'mal,' refers to the not so positive types of adaptations.

Anyway, how does this relate to stress?

Well, the term has been borrowed in order to cover those coping strategies we often resort to when experiencing chronic stress (and indeed acutely stressful situations, but we'll focus on chronic stress for now).

So, as we've explained, chronic stress refers to the state where we are under pressure, have engaged our stress reaction, and remain this way for extended periods of time.  As humans, we have an overriding drive to survive and cope.  We need to feel like we are in control of the situation and that need to cope can compel us to react in lots of ways, some positive, some not so.

Examples of maladaptive coping strategies when under chronic stress

  • drinking excessively - an artificial means of relaxation?
  • smoking, or taking other drugs whether legal or illegal.
  • over or under-eating - craving energy because of the impact of the stress reaction on our insulin management and blood sugar levels or 'i just don't have time to eat!'
  • getting to work earlier, leaving work later and not taking breaks - need to catch up/ keep on top/ get through this workload, etc - cope, survive.
  • withdrawal - from those around you.  Might be a short term beneficial strategy, but long term, may lead to isolation and lack of support.
  • Anger and aggression - 'can't believe how those b*****ds are causing me so much stress', etc etc!!

Those are just a few examples. I'm sure anyone who has experienced chronic stress can either identify with some of the above or come up with their own.  The key message is that whilst survival is a positive (as John Kabat Zinn says in one of his Mindfulness meditations - 'if you are still breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you'), how you are surviving may be causing some damage - whether to you personally or to those around you.

Have a think.  Are you or have you experienced periods of stress?  If so, how are you/ did you cope?  Jot these down and see if you can identify some maladaptive coping strategies there.

The key is to identify them in order to avoid or tackle them in the future.

More to come

Keep an eye out for the next blog.

Dave Algeo

Motivational Speaker on resilience and men's mental health.

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