Identifying unhelpful behaviors

Two types of behaviors

Once we have learned to see our lives in terms of behaviors, we need to understand how these behaviors operate in our lives. Often we do things that feel good in the moment, but in the long run they increase our feelings of distress, guilt or sadness. Are our behaviors helping us, or are they a bad habit that we should work on changing?

We will distinguish between two types of behaviors:

Maladaptive
A behavior that may seem to be helpful in the short term, but is ultimately not effective at improving mental well-being. These dysfunctional behaviors can actually increase feelings of anxiety, stress or depression.
Adaptive
An adaptive behavior allows you to constructively adjust to a situation, and has a positive long term effect on one's mental state. These behaviors can be difficult or challenging in the short term. For example, assume you are trying to improve your health. Eating a carrot instead of a chocolate bar may give less short term gratification, but does work towards your long term goal.

Avoidant behaviors

A common type of maladaptive behavior is an avoidant behavior – avoiding a particular situation that you find unpleasant in order to reduce your anxiety. Avoiding situations typically does not work because it does not address the underlying problem.

For example, drinking alcohol when upset is an example of an avoidant behavior. Consider Tanja, who drinks to help deal with the stress related to her fertility problems. In the short term it can work as a distraction. However, there are several problems with this behavior:

  • When Tanja sobers up her fertility problems remain
  • Sometimes avoidant behaviors cause problems of there own. In this case, there are health and social problems associated with excessive drinking.
  • Every time Tanja drinks as a means of escape, she misses an opportunity to engage in a behavior that may lead to fulfillment and a better future (this will be discussed in the final section of the program).

How to examine your behaviors

Heavy drinking is an extreme and obvious example. However, many maladaptive behaviors are more subtle and difficult to identify. One reason is that a particular behavior can be helpful for one person, but unhelpful for another. For example, for moderate drinkers a glass of wine can be enjoyable, helpful and fully compatible with working towards a richer future. In this case, drinking is not an avoidant behavior.

When examining behaviors it is important to consider the long term consequences. In particular, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the short term and long term consequences of this behavior?
  • How could I be using my time differently?

Much of CBT is about understanding which of our behaviors are adaptive or maladaptive. These behaviors are so common in everyday life that most of them occur without conscious awareness. You can think of them as distraction behaviors. We can be distracting ourselves from all sorts of things such as feeling overwhelmed. It is tricky to identify what are adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. However, the exercises in this program will help you to learn to understand the difference between the two.