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Maladaptive Behavior and Alcoholism

March 13, 2024
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
March 13, 2024
21 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
March 13, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
March 13, 2024
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
March 13, 2024
21 min read

Maladaptive Behavior And Alcoholism

  • Maladaptive behaviors and thoughts take hold when we struggle with certain aspects of life and develop ways to cope that ultimately don’t benefit us. Examples of maladaptive behavior include avoidance, withdrawal, anger, self-harm, eating disorders, and substance misuse.

  • We can find our way out of maladaptive behaviors by getting to know our patterns, asking for help, using techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and becoming part of a supportive community.

  • As a neuroscience-based program that draws on CBT techniques, Reframe provides you with practical tools to deal with maladaptive behaviors.

Adaptations are huge in the natural world. It all goes back to evolution: we’ve all heard about the first organisms that left the oceans to live on dry land. They thrived with the help of lungs and limbs that replaced gills and fins. All living things adapt; bees have developed an intricate way to communicate through their trademark “waggle dance,” and desert plants store water in their succulent tissues to get through long droughts. 

As humans, we are also amazing at adapting to our environment. We created Stone Age tools (and eventually digital age computers and smartphones); we manage to navigate and even thrive in pretty much every type of climate around the globe, and we communicate with each other in thousands of languages that we acquire with relative ease before we are even old enough to feed and take care of ourselves.

And yet, many times those adaptations can take us in the wrong direction, leading to so-called maladaptive behavior. What is maladaptive behavior, and what is the science behind it? And how does alcohol fit into the picture? Let’s find out more!

What Are Maladaptive Behaviors and Maladaptive Thoughts?

As humans, we tend to be driven by two basic motivations: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. It’s in our song lyrics — whether it’s The Eagles telling us that “Some dance to remember / some dance to forget,” or Pitbull encouraging us with “Now let's get loose, have some fun / forget about bills and the first of the month.” Even the substances we tend to misuse reflect this dichotomy, as we generally classify them as either “uppers” or “downers.”

The maladaptive behaviors we adapt also fit into these two basic categories. In an effort to create excitement or make life easier when it gets stressful, we fall into coping mechanisms that can sometimes become dysfunctional, or “maladaptive.”

There is no single “maladaptive behavior” definition, but it’s easy to identify patterns. Some behaviors are oriented toward the outside world, such as angry outbursts, while others are more internal, such as withdrawing into our thoughts. Many are a mixture of the two and can manifest themselves in a number of different ways ranging from eating disorders to substance misuse or self-harm.

The Maladaptive Brain

The science behind maladaptive behaviors has to do with how our brain is wired. Structurally, the two main categories of maladaptive coping mechanisms originate from two main pathways: the reward system and the stress response.

  • Shortcut to reward. The brain loves shortcuts, and the quick path to pleasure is at the top of the list. The reward pathway is governed by dopamine — the “feel-good” neurotransmitter responsible for the pleasure and reward we feel when engaging in activities like eating delicious food, socializing, or pursuing romantic interests. While it originally evolved to encourage us towards the habits necessary for our survival, this powerful system can get hijacked by certain behaviors or substances that provide an instantly gratifying rush of dopamine. Unfortunately, this comes at a great price.
  • Bypassing stress. At the same time, we are wired to minimize our stress by increasing production of neurotransmitters such as GABA, which helps us relax. So when an “easy” way to calm our worries presents itself, it can feel natural to gravitate toward it. Once again, however, this “free” way to relieve stress tends to backfire, leading to more stress in the long run.

Part 1. Types of Maladaptive Behaviors and Thoughts

There are many types of maladaptive behaviors, and each one will bear the hallmark of our individual characteristics. Our environments and personal histories are unique to us, and so are our behaviors — functional as well as dysfunctional ones. 

That said, there are a few types of maladaptive behaviors that stand out among the rest. The first three are more thought-oriented, while the rest manifest in our external actions.

1. Avoidance: “This Isn’t Happening.”

Avoidance is one of the most common types of maladaptive behaviors that fall more into the thought realm — though it does result in certain physical actions that we take when we follow those thoughts.

Avoidance is all about disengagement from the present as a way to avoid potentially stressful or painful experiences. Researchers describe it as a common maladaptive response to stress or anxiety. It’s the human version of the small animal that runs across the busy road with its eyes closed, hoping for the best.

  • Example 1: James hasn’t been to the dentist in years. He notices that his teeth are becoming sensitive to air and cold water, but he tells himself they were always like that. “Maybe it’s just some damaged tooth enamel,” he thinks, continuing to eat sugary snacks at night, after he has brushed his teeth. “What’s one more day? It can’t hurt.”
  • Example 2: Lucy spots a job on LinkedIn that seems perfect for her. She has the experience and the skills, and it’s just a matter of sending in her resume. And yet she waits, telling herself that maybe something else will come along and that it’s easier to just stick with the job she has right now, even though she hasn’t been satisfied in months or even years. Going in for an interview and facing possible rejection feels too stressful, so in the moment it’s easier to just stay put and let everything remain the same.

2. Withdrawal: “Let’s Pretend I’m Not Here.”

Similar to avoidance, withdrawal is all about protecting ourselves by shutting down. We close ourselves off to the world around us because it feels easier than facing our problems or fears. It can manifest in many different ways, but ultimately it’s a protection reflex that can end up hurting us in the long run.

  • Example 1: Alyssa is worried about what her colleagues might think of her in a social setting, so at a company event she spends most of her time glued to her phone, checking Facebook posts from friends. At the end of the evening, her fear seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy: by withdrawing from the social circle, she didn’t have a chance to make any impression at all and ends up feeling like she was intentionally ignored.
  • Example 2: Jake’s in-laws criticize him unfairly, and his wife has trouble standing up for him. When the family makes plans to spend Thanksgiving together, Jake begrudgingly agrees but spends most of the weekend with his headphones on, listening to podcasts rather than being fully present and potentially confronting his relatives. As a result, his relationship with them does not change, and they still see him the same way.
The Interplay of Maladaptive Behavior and Alcoholism

3. Passive-Aggressive Behavior: “I Never Said There Was a Problem.”

Passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect expression of negative feelings or attitudes toward someone. Instead of directly addressing the problem or being honest about our feelings, we use sarcasm and underhanded comments, and then deny our intentions when confronted. This “passive” behavior is ultimately masking the “aggressive” feelings at the heart of our actions.

Make no mistake, passive-aggression isn’t just “keeping the peace.” It can quickly go from a bad habit to a weaponized form of emotional manipulation. It has the potential to be very destructive to relationships, resulting in resentment and misunderstandings that can sometimes take years to untangle.

  • Example 1: Doreen and her friend have a disagreement. Instead of confronting her friend directly, Doreen posts on Facebook making vague references to the argument, implicating the friend without accusing her directly.
  • Example 2: Michelle is upset that her roommates are inviting people over on days when she has to work early the next morning. Instead of talking to them, she has a loud phone conversation about it, expressing her anger loudly enough that she knows everyone will be able to hear her.

4. Anger and Emotional Outbursts: “The World Is Against Me!”

We all feel angry sometimes, and it’s natural. But what if anger becomes excessive? If we don’t find healthy ways to express our anger and instead we “bottle it up,” it can come out in harmful ways. As a maladaptive behavior, angry outbursts and tantrums can relieve that built-up stress and emotional pressure at the moment, but at a long-term cost. This anger tends to be misdirected and irrational, causing us to blame others instead of examining the heart of the matter. Frequent outbursts can take a toll on all areas of our lives, including our family, social, and work relationships.

5. Self-Harm: “I Need To Feel Pain.”

Sometimes overwhelming stress or negative emotions can provoke us harm to ourselves as a way to “translate” emotional distress into physical pain. People might turn to this maladaptive behavior as a temporary escape, to express feelings they can't put into words, or to feel a sense of control. However, self-harm is a risky and destructive coping mechanism that can lead to more severe health issues — so never ignore it, and know that there’s help available.

6. Eating Disorders: “Eating / Not Eating Will Make This Feel Better.”

Food is a source of dopamine for us — it activates our reward system. In times of stress, it can become a comfort, leading to overeating. (Ever heard of “stress eating?”) On the other hand, obsessively focusing on food and controlling this dopamine response through restriction can give us a powerful feeling of control — with potentially harmful consequences.

Whether the focus is on weight and body image or the food itself, issues like binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia can develop when we cope by changing our food intake. While these might start as innocent coping mechanisms, they can quickly spiral out of control and become a source of more difficulty.

Like self-harm and substance misuse (discussed below), this maladaptive behavior comes with significant health risks, so it’s crucial to be vigilant and ask for help if these behavior patterns emerge.

7. Substance Misuse and Other Addictions: “I Can’t Do This Without a Drink.”

Similar to eating disorders, substance use disorders involve the use of alcohol or other drugs in ways that might initially offer comfort or the illusion of pleasure, but that end up hurting us in the long run. According to research, they’re one of the most common types of maladaptive behaviors.

Part 2. Alcohol as a Maladaptive Behavior

When it comes to alcohol’s effect on the brain, it’s kind of a chameleon. It initially seems to act as a stimulant, creating that energizing boozy “high” feeling we briefly get when we drink. However, it’s actually a depressant that dulls our senses and slows down our brain processes. How is this possible? Here’s a brief overview of the neurotransmitters behind these effects:

  • Dopamine provides a brief “high.” Alcohol artificially boosts levels of dopamine — the feel-good neurotransmitter responsible for motivation and pleasure. The world seems lighter and what we might normally think is a run-of-the-mill (or even boring) conversation might suddenly feel dazzling. Unfortunately, this is all a biochemical illusion, but it’s easy to get sucked into the allure and start relying on booze to feel happy and social.
  • Changes in GABA and glutamate levels create the “relaxing” effect. Alcohol increases the levels of the calming neurotransmitter GABA while lowering the levels of its stimulating counterpart, glutamate. Once again, the result is an illusion — this time it’s one of relaxation caused by the dulling effects on our sensations, including any stressful thoughts we might be seeking relief from.

As we all know, though, these effects don’t last. Worse still, they backfire — big time. If we continue turning to alcohol to feel good for a short amount of time or use it for relaxation, it quickly becomes a maladaptive behavior. Unfortunately, this particular maladaptive behavior is one that can only accelerate. Here’s where that path goes:

  • Tolerance and dependence sets in. As our body gets used to the presence of alcohol and our brain chemistry shifts, it takes more booze to achieve the same effect. The brain also begins to expect the “free” surplus of dopamine, leading to dependence.
  • Withdrawal happens if we stop suddenly. When the effects of alcohol wear off, the body starts to go through withdrawal. This brings on symptoms opposite to those we’re used to getting from drinking — anxiety, tremors, agitation, and (in severe cases) seizures.
  • Alcohol takes a toll on our health. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can lead to many health issues, ranging from physical outcomes like liver disease, cardiovascular problems, and immune system glitches to neurological damage and depression

Ultimately, maladaptive behaviors don’t serve us, and alcohol is no exception. Luckily, there are ways to overcome these habits and improve our ways of coping.

Part 3. The Way Out

If you find yourself struggling as alcohol use becomes a maladaptive behavior in your life, you’re not alone. And there’s a way out! Here are some things you can do:

  • Become an observer of your behaviors. Don’t judge — just observe your reactions to certain situations the way a scientist would. Take detailed notes in a journal, or type them into your smartphone or computer. The format doesn’t matter — it just has to make sense to you! Seeing patterns emerge can be incredibly helpful in figuring out the next steps.
  • Talk to a pro. Find a therapist whose methods jive with you, and use their expertise — they can help you untangle the puzzle of your maladaptive behaviors around alcohol. Techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are especially useful when it comes to tricky behavioral patterns. Both involve identifying your own thought patterns, emotional reactions, and behaviors while addressing your relationship to yourself and to the outside world. 
  • Share your story. Read and listen to stories of others who have had similar struggles and share your own. A supportive community can work wonders for recovering from maladaptive behavioral patterns, including alcohol misuse. Check out the Reframe community available 24/7 right on your phone, whenever you need it!
  • Build a life of meaning. The more you face life head-on, without the buffer of alcohol — or whatever your maladaptive behavior might be — the more natural it will start to feel and the more freedom you will eventually have. It might feel awkward at first, but give it time! Go to alcohol-free social events, take adult education classes, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, read, grow a vegetable garden, start a decorating project, go hiking — there’s a world out there for you to discover and explore!

Summary FAQs

1. What are maladaptive behaviors?

Maladaptive behaviors are actions or thoughts that may seem helpful in the short term but are harmful in the long term. They are ways of dealing with stress or issues that ultimately impede well-being and growth, like avoiding social situations, substance abuse, or perfectionism.

2. How can I tell if I'm engaging in maladaptive behaviors?

You might be engaging in maladaptive behaviors if you notice patterns that provide short-term relief but cause long-term problems, especially if they interfere with your daily life or relationships. Keeping track of your habits and emotional states can help identify these patterns.

3. Is it possible to overcome maladaptive behaviors?

Absolutely! With awareness, support, and often professional help, you can replace maladaptive behaviors with healthier coping strategies. It involves understanding the underlying issues, learning new skills, and sometimes changing your environment.

4. Why do people turn to alcohol as a maladaptive behavior?

People may turn to alcohol to escape discomfort or stress, to feel more at ease in social situations, or to numb emotional pain. The temporary relief or pleasure it provides can make it a go-to coping strategy, leading to a cycle of dependence and abuse.

5. Are there any good alternatives to these maladaptive behaviors?

Yes! Depending on the behavior, alternatives might include mindfulness and meditation for stress, exercise for mood enhancement, therapy for emotional support, or hobbies and social activities for fulfillment. It's about finding what works for you and supports your well-being.

Ready To Change Your Relationship With Alcohol in the New Year? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet hundreds of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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