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Maladaptive Coping Strategies

Updated: Mar 31

We have an amazing ability to develop coping mechanisms that allow us to survive unspeakable traumas. When the protective strategy is no longer necessary or applicable, it becomes maladaptive. Likely, the coping process is now habitual. In other words, what once served to help us survive now damages us – how we see ourselves and our relationships.

Let’s start at the beginning. What is a trauma?

Wong et al. (2015) defined trauma as anything that shakes the foundation of a person. For example, trauma is typically defined as abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), neglect (physical, emotional), divorce, natural disasters, war, poverty, and assault. According to the DSM-5, it is “Any event (or events) that may cause or threaten death, serious injury, or sexual violence to an individual, a close family member, or a close friend” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

While natural disasters threaten/cause death and severe injury and can result in significant trauma, interpersonal traumas tend to have a more pronounced impact on an individual’s psychological and emotional health. Interpersonal trauma can cause one to stop trusting themselves, i.e., their judgment and other people. It can generate seemingly endless “why” and “what could I have done differently” questions.

A whole host of biopsychosocial and emotional symptoms can arise from trauma, e.g., anxiety, depression, dissociation, insomnia, nightmares and flashbacks during which the trauma is re-experienced, and personality disorders, to name a few.

Enter maladaptive coping strategies.

What started as a way to relax has become an addiction. What began as a protective measure morphed into an almost complete withdrawal from social activities. The routine that once helped you feel in control is now controlling you. Sexual activity has become a compulsion rather than a healthy desire.

However your maladaptive coping strategies manifest, they are learned behaviors. This means that you can learn new healthier behaviors that help you move forward into the future you want to create rather than continuing to use techniques that keep you tethered to the trauma you are trying to forget.

Contact me for help transitioning from surviving your trauma to thriving.

Angela W. Startz, MAHSC, CCLC


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). APA

Wong, D. W., Hall, K. R., Justice, C. A., & Hernandez, L. W. (2015). Counseling individuals through the lifespan. SAGE

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