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Adaptive vs Maladaptive Coping Skills - CBT Kenya
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Adaptive vs Maladaptive Coping Skills – CBT Kenya

By Edwina Bijurenda

Coping occurs when and individual invests their conscious effort, to solve personal or interpersonal problems in order to master and minimize the stress and conflict that arise from such issues. The methods used to cope are referred to as coping strategies or skills. These skills generally fall under 3 styles: task-oriented, emotion-oriented, and avoidance-oriented.

Task-oriented coping skills involve activities that directly impact the situation and lead to a desired outcome of alleviating the stress of the said situation. In everyday lives this commonly presents in the workplace as Individuals aim to prevent burnout. Workers will engage in task-oriented coping skills that require adaptation. Thus, resulting in dedicating time, to evaluate the issues and resolve them in order to avoid further stress. Often it is very successful with matters that can realistically be resolved.

Emotion-oriented coping skills involve alleviating the emotional impact that the stress from the situation has, rather than resolve the issue. Examples of such strategies involve engaging in behaviour that provides dopamine and adrenaline rewards. That includes praying, practicing mindfulness and meditation and the more negative strategies of eating unhealthy comfort foods and engaging with drugs and alcohol.

Avoidance-oriented coping skills also regard the emotional impact of the stress and result in the individual ignoring the stressful situation and avoiding engaging with it so as to mitigate its negative effects. All theses styles have their applicability to situations and can benefit an individual’s coping if used within reason.

However, when used incorrectly such coping strategies and styles can become maladaptive and harm the individual instead of helping them. Coping often follows a specific routine. The individual comes across a stressor. Their normal stress mechanisms fail, and they are unable to effectively eliminate the stressor, so they enter a cognitive state of not coping which then transforms into an adaptive mode. An adaptive mode is an involuntary state of mind that interferes with normal functioning (Lehti 2016). The so called ‘flight or fight’ state. At this point distorted cognitions will arise, and the individual must strive to attain functioning coping skills and sufficient social support, to enable them to enter the next stage of coping which is Compensation. That is usually when they begin to recover from the effects of the stressor and begin to show resilience. Resilience at this point enables positive adaptation that will empower the individual to bounce back from their adversity as they eventually attain well-being (Bryan et al 2017). It is important to note the impact of resilience in positive coping, as it highly influences the psychological resources before, during and after minor to moderate adverse experiences.

Maladaptive coping strategies, however, occur when the individual is unable to attain functioning coping skills and sufficient social support to overcome their distorted cognition’s when in the Adaptive mode. Their distorted cognitions of never being able to escape the stressor become overwhelming and produce dysfunctional coping skills in addition to the insufficient social support.

These improper skills prolong the adaptive state which then becomes marked with significant suffering. To cope secondary coping skills are adopted but the satisfactory adaption seems impossible and so the individual risks entering a long-term dysfunctional state. Most psychiatry disorders stem from such maladaptive processes. Although they sound terminal most Maladaptive coping strategies can be turned into functional skills that lead to well-being.

Poor coping skills are also associated with negative mental outcomes (McLafferty et al 2019). Depression in particular ties into dysfunctional states due to maladaptive coping as negative symptoms such as paranoia from distorted cognitions, avoidance and suppression are sustained. The Maladaptive coping styles questionnaire (Moritz et al 2016) demonstrated this as these were the symptoms that remained, after depression was controlled for among st participants. Therefore, proving that those with depression had significantly higher maladaptive coping than non-depressed individuals.

As coping skills are needed to deal with the unavoidable stressors of life. They can be incorporated into everyday life activities. Cumbe et al 2017, evaluated the importance of incorporating adaptive coping skills into the workplace to prevent burn out. They found that employees that experienced burn out due to emotional exhaustion, were also victims to their lack of effective adaptive skills. Therefore, if training schemes are incorporated into the workplace addressing such matters then burn out cases are likely to reduce. Such trainings could include organizational structural readjustment to reduce hours worked per week per worker. This was demonstrated in the study by Labrague et al 2017 regarding coping skills among nurses. The nurses demonstrated better coping, once they utilized task-oriented coping strategies rather than emotion-oriented coping skills. These skills included problem solving behaviors, self-confident approaches and seeking support from family and friends.

In conclusion, with this clear understanding on coping strategies and what determines maladaptive strategies from adaptive ones, it is easier to then understand how to develop healthier coping skills to deal with some adversities in life. You are warmly encouraged to browse other articles on this website, that include strategies on how to deal and recover from the stressors of life.


Bryan, C., O’Shea, D., & MacIntyre, T. (2017). Stressing the relevance of resilience: a systematic review of resilience across the domains of sport and work. International Review Of Sport And Exercise Psychology12(1), 70-111. doi: 10.1080/1750984x.2017.1381140

CUMBE, V., PALA, A., PALHA, A., GAIO, A., ESTEVES, M., MARI, J., & WAINBERG, M. (2017). Burnout syndrome and coping strategies in Portuguese oncology health care providers. Archives Of Clinical Psychiatry (São Paulo)44(5), 122-126. doi: 10.1590/0101-60830000000135

Labrague, L., McEnroe-Petitte, D., Al Amri, M., Fronda, D., & Obeidat, A. (2017). An integrative review on coping skills in nursing students: implications for policymaking. International Nursing Review65(2), 279-291. doi: 10.1111/inr.12393

Lehti, J. (2016). Theory of psychological adaptive modes. Medical Hypotheses90, 66-73. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2016.03.003

McLafferty, M., Armour, C., Bunting, B., Ennis, E., Lapsley, C., Murray, E., & O’Neill, S. (2019). Coping, stress, and negative childhood experiences: The link to psychopathology, self‐harm, and suicidal behaviour. Psych Journal8(3), 293-306. doi: 10.1002/pchj.301

Moritz, S., Lüdtke, T., Westermann, S., Hermeneit, J., Watroba, J., & Lincoln, T. (2016). Dysfunctional coping with stress in psychosis. An investigation with the Maladaptive and Adaptive Coping Styles (MAX) questionnaire. Schizophrenia Research175(1-3), 129-135. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2016.04.025

Author: cbtkeadmin
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