Adaptive vs. Maladaptive – How we cope with stress

by | Oct 10, 2023

In this article, we’ll talk about coping strategies used to manage stress and difficult situations. As humans responding to our environment, we are wired to adapt. However, our bodies and minds can also adapt in unhealthy ways as a means to cope with stress. These responses, rather than decreasing our stress and improving our lives, can actually make things much much worse. 

We’ll classify these responses into two categories – adaptive and maladaptive and explore how our bodies respond to stress, how adaptive responses can improve our overall health, how and why maladaptive responses are formed, and look at tools and tips to shift them into healthy responses.

A scientific look at stress responses

When faced with challenging or threatening situations, our bodies respond with physical and cognitive reactions, often referred to as the stress response. This response can trigger the release of substances such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can affect our organs and bodily functions in specific ways. Essentially, our bodies are programmed to react to stress in order to help us cope with and overcome the situation. 

Adaptive response refers to the ability of a cell, tissue, or organism to better withstand damage from stress after being exposed to a lesser amount of stress. This phenomenon, known as hormesis, can enhance our physiological responses and improve our overall health when we are exposed to small amounts of stress. For instance, regular exercise can cause minor stress to our muscles, which can help them to adapt and grow stronger over time. Similarly, exposure to small amounts of certain toxins can stimulate our immune system and improve our ability to fight off infections. 

However, responding to stress in maladaptive ways can have negative effects on our organs and bodily functions, leading to health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

Adaptive strategies

Healthy ways to cope with stress involve finding adaptive strategies that help manage stressors and improve our overall well-being. One effective way is to practice self-care, which involves engaging in activities that promote physical, mental, and emotional well-being. This can include activities like regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in hobbies or activities that you enjoy. Taking breaks, setting boundaries, and practicing mindfulness and meditation can also help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation.

Another healthy way to cope with stress is by seeking support from others. This can involve talking to a trusted friend or family member, joining a support group, or seeking help from a mental health professional. Talking openly about your feelings and concerns can help you gain a new perspective on your problems and feel less overwhelmed. Additionally, being part of a supportive community can help you feel connected and supported, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness. By finding healthy ways to cope with stress, you can improve your overall well-being and lead a happier, more fulfilling life.

Maladaptive strategies

When it comes to coping with stress, not all strategies are helpful. Maladaptive strategies are harmful or ineffective in managing stress. They involve avoidance, denial, or unhealthy behaviours such as substance abuse. For example, someone might turn to alcohol or drugs to numb their feelings of stress or anxiety instead of addressing the root cause of the problem.

We may also over-indulge in food, television or technology as a way to cope with stress. Eating a healthy diet and taking time to unwind is important, but if we find ourselves using these strategies excessively, we may need to find a more balanced approach.

Another unhelpful way to cope with stress is through avoidance. This can take many forms, such as procrastination, withdrawing from social activities, or ignoring problems altogether. While avoidance may provide temporary relief, it only prolongs the stress and can even make it worse in the long run. It’s important to find healthy ways to cope with stress that address the root cause and help build resilience


It’s important to remember that everyone copes with stress differently, and what works for one person may not work for another. Coping strategies can change over time, and what worked in the past may not be effective in the present.

Understanding the difference between adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies is essential for managing stress and maintaining good mental health. By recognizing maladaptive coping patterns and finding healthier ways to manage stress, we can improve our overall well-being and lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

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