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Maladaptive Behaviors: Avoiding Feared Situations

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Updated May 21, 2009

Maladaptive behaviors refer to types of behaviors that inhibit a person’s ability to adjust to particular situations. Maladaptive behaviors are never good because they prevent people from adapting to the demands of life. Often used to reduce anxiety, maladaptive behaviors actually result in dysfunctional and non-productive outcomes. If you experience frequent panic (anxiety) attacks and have been diagnosed with panic disorder or another anxiety disorder, you may have inadvertently developed maladaptive patterns of behavior to cope with your situation.

Avoidance of feared situations is a common maladaptive behavior associated with panic disorder. Avoidant behaviors are “dysfunctional” because they tend to provide only short-term relief from anxiety. They are non-productive in alleviating the actual problem in the long run and may, in fact, serve to reinforce underlying fears.

For many people, the symptoms of panic disorder often trigger an array of avoidant behaviors. This can result in agoraphobia, a common complication of PD. Agoraphobia can take a little time to develop, or it can come on rather quickly. Some sufferers believe their agoraphobic symptoms began after their first panic attack. Once agoraphobia takes root, avoidance behaviors often multiply quickly.

The Complications of Avoidance

Imagine you’re driving up to the top of a bridge and, without warning, you experience a dreaded sense of doom. Your heart begins to race wildly; your hands are shaking as you try to grip the steering wheel. It seems difficult to get air into your lungs, and you feel dizzy. There is no place to pull over, and you are completely at the mercy of this horrific thing that is happening. You wonder if you might be having a heart attack or dying from some strange, unknown illness. As you descend the bridge, you begin to calm down. You are still quite visibly shaken, but you are regaining some composure.

Your thoughts become focused on what could have happened if you had lost consciousness or were unable to maintain control of your car when you were driving over that bridge. You think, “What if I drove off the bridge? What if I got into a car accident? What if I had to stop my car abruptly in traffic and people started blowing their horns and yelling at me?” The logical answer to maintain your safety seems to be to avoid that bridge -- or maybe, all bridges.

But, then it happens again -- this time while you’re standing in line at a grocery store. You’ve just emptied your cart onto the conveyor belt and the panic hits you. Your heart is racing, you’re sweating, and you can’t seem to get enough air. You imagine that you may collapse right there, or you think about the embarrassment of losing control and visualize yourself screaming and running out of the store. But, somehow you manage to stand there while the clerk completes ringing up your purchase. When you exit the store, your legs are weak and your hands are shaking, but you feel a sense of relief. You now start to avoid long grocery store lines -- or maybe, waiting in any lines.

You eventually develop an array of maladaptive behavioral changes in order to avoid feared situations. You may survey settings for escape routes and avoid situations where an exit is not easily available. You may only driving on certain roads, always sit near the door in meeting or school settings, avoid crowded places, or avoid any place where it may be difficult to get to an exit. While alleviating anxiety in the short-term, it becomes clear that avoidance is dysfunctional and non-productive in the long run.

Facing Your Fears

Facing your fears and putting yourself into anxiety-provoking situations is not easy. But, doing so will help you to develop adaptive ways to deal with your anxiety and will aid in your recovery from panic disorder. Systematic desensitization is based on the principles of classical conditioning and the premise that what has been learned (conditioned) can be unlearned. Ample research shows that systematic desensitization is effective in reducing anxiety and panic attacks associated with fearful situations.

Systematic desensitization usually starts with imagining yourself in a progression of fearful situations and using relaxation strategies that compete with anxiety. Once you can successfully manage your anxiety while imagining fearful events, you can use the technique in real life situations. The process involves facing your fears and using adaptive coping skills to manage your anxiety.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision" 2000 Washington, DC: Author.

Breaking Free From Anxiety Disorders – Self-Care Handbook. (1998). Deerfield, MA: Channing L. Bete Co.

Carbonell, D. "Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick" 2004 Ulysses Press: Berkeley, CA.

Corey, Gerald. (2009). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

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