The term 'adaptives' describes helpful thinking patterns, beneficial coping mechanisms and productive behavior that allows us to successfully navigate challenges. We use these tools to soothe ourselves effectively so we can positively interact with our family, friends, community, and environment during times of stress. 

Behavioral adaptations are thought to control the way we carry our bodies and our facial expressions. This is called affect regulation. During each interaction, we choose our responses in order to show a specific affect to those around us. We choose this affect in an effort to reach our desired outcomes (Swerdlow, 2020).

When we desire to improve the areas of our lives, we use adaptive thoughts, coping and behavior to influence those around us and our environment in a positive way. This facilitates a mutually beneficial connection with those around us. Stronger social connections within our community helps us become more resilient to outside influences and allows us to influence our worlds in a more meaningful way.

We can use emotion-focused adaptives, which are powerful when connecting with someone important to us during a stressful time, or we can use problem-focused adaptives when complex planning and execution is needed to overcome obstacles (Thomspon, 2010). Self soothing adaptives allow us to provide for our own needs during a challenging time, which allows our minds to stay open to potential solutions as well as reduces the stress of those around us. 

Adaptive Thinking

When confronted with a challenge, we use adaptive thinking to take a step back and observe the thoughts that automatically come into our minds. This intentional action allows us to investigate our thoughts for accuracy and usefulness. We can then reject or accept each thought in the context of our current needs and environment. If we choose to reject our thought(s), we can then utilize alternatives that will help us meet our needs in that specific situation (Safren, 2017).

The following approaches can help us evaluate our thoughts:

  • Make an effort to think through the situation. 
    • Consider who is involved, what is occurring, the season/the date/influential events, social and environmental contexts, and what caused the situation.
  • Avoid passing judgment.
    • When we make a judgment call, we end our critical thinking and act on our preconceptions instead of the situation at hand.
  • Seek answers for the sake of clarity and mutual understanding.
    • We’re asking questions with a focus on moving away
      from disagreement and toward cooperation.
    • This also involves making an effort to formulate the words and tone we may be using with others so we aren't counterproductive.
  • Use empathy and attempt to view the situation from another's perspective.
    • When we evaluate how others may see a situation, we can access more information and prevent getting 'stuck' in our habitual patterns of thought.
  • Take time to think through what is motivating those around us.
    • If we can understand some of the reasons why the people around us are acting a certain way, we are better able to plan solutions and predict potential outcomes. 
  • Ask ourselves about our present, in the moment, needs and desires.
    • What role are we playing in this situation? Is it helpful to us or others? Are we safe? Do we benefit from engaging in the situation?
  • Pursue mutually beneficial outcomes through cooperation.
    • Can we work to meet everyone's basic needs and maintain their dignity?
    • Consider creative ways to work out solutions that minimize harm and maximize collaboration.

When we find ourselves overwhelmed with unhelpful and inaccurate thoughts, there are some proven strategies available to us that can reduce their mental burden (HCSAT, 2011):

  • Actively acknowledge the thought as it comes up.
    • Oftentimes the more we try to ignore something, the more we tend to focus on it.
  • Try to redirect the thought toward something more positive and helpful.
  • Intentionally visualize pushing the thought away or throwing it in the trash.
  • Imagine someone loved and trusted.
    • Ask - how would they think in this moment?
    • How would they act?
    • What advice would they give?
    • How would they encourage others?
  • Remind ourselves of difficult situations that we've survived.
  • Remember the actions we've taken in the past to keep ourselves safe.

Unhelpful thinking, coping and behavior that doesn't meet our needs is referred to as maladaptive. For more information on maladaptive thinking, click here.

When we are experiencing difficulties in life, it can help to utilize a mindset that focuses on reducing the overall impact of hardships. This reduces the power the hardship has to alter our state of mind. One way to do this is to think about ways to make challenges short term, contain the problem's impact to the fewest areas of life as possible, and assigning fault, blame and responsibility to factors external to us appropriately, instead of blaming ourselves (Seligman, 2018). For more information on how to use optimism as a tool, click here.

Another thought process we can employ to enhance our adaptability is the perspective of unconditional positive regard. Here we use a foundational attitude of active, positive acceptance when evaluating the things that go wrong in our lives and the role we play in them. The purpose of this mental framing is to preserve the dignity and self-respect of all parties involved, ourselves included. This creates a healthy headspace where value judgments are suspended and individual worth and value is prioritized. To learn more about unconditional positive regard, click here.

Another beneficial attitude we can use as an adaptive resource is radical acceptance. This perspective asks us to make an active effort to accept people as they are, the situation for what it is, and ourselves as imperfect human people with strengths and weaknesses. For more insight into how to use radical acceptance, click here.

When confronted with things that scare, intimidate or trigger us, we can limit their ability to influence our state of mind through the use of a tool called exposure and response prevention. Encountering our triggers in a safe environment, before meeting them at random out in the world, gives us time to practice different responses and resolution techniques. This reduces a need for fear and avoidance and strengthens our ability to maintain equilibrium. For more information on exposure and response prevention, click here.

Forgiveness is an adaptive thought process that allows us to move past social transgressions in a prosocial manner. It enhances our motivation to cooperate with others on accepting a mutual reality as well as make agreeable changes to meet the needs of each party involved (McCollough, 2001). When we forgive, we reduce the impact of negative events on our self-image and the way we perceive and interact with others (Enright, 1998). For more information on forgiveness, click here.

When something external to us challenges our internally held image of ourselves, we can benefit from using language (both in our thoughts, and spoken aloud) that reinforces our belief that we can be fair, competent, complete, stable, able to make choices freely, able to influence important outcomes, and able to impact the world through our actions (Steele, 2008). For more information on affirmations, click here.

Flexible thinking allows us to become more adaptable to changing situations, both mentally and through our behavior. When flexible, we more accurately assess our surroundings, the motivations and needs of the people present, and the tools available to us to act on. Mental flexibility also helps us problem solve and work together with others as a part of a team (Hendrix, 2016). More information on flexible thinking is available on the cognitive behavioral therapy page.

One small effort that can have a huge impact on how we see ourselves is to celebrate progress. Try to think positively about something that was accomplished at least once a day, every day, even if it feels minimal. Celebrating ourselves and the efforts we put into life makes it easier to keep going (Rosselló, 2007). 

Adaptive Coping and Behavior

Adaptive coping and behavior creates an internal stability that helps us maintain our psychological balance during times of stress and heightened emotions. These tools allow us to manage our emotional responses faster and more effectively, act in a manner that is aligned with our desired outcome and personal values, and soothe ourselves in a way that enhances our ability to get our needs met (Javed, 2021).

When under the influence of intense emotion, we can benefit from taking a step back from the upsetting stimuli to catch our breath. We focus our energy on even, slow, deep inhalation and exhalation (USDHHS, 2021 June). Start by breathing in deeply while counting to four. Next, hold that breath for four seconds. Then exhale for four seconds. Do this at least five times in a row before moving on to the next task (APA, 2019). Consider playing music with a slow beat, and breathing to the rhythm (USDHHS, 2021 June). 

To resolve intense emotion, we focus on self-soothing. A calm, quiet and safe environment is ideal. Seek out something comforting to wear, hold or wrap up in. Pour a warm cup of tea, a cold glass of water, or whatever is preferred. We may benefit from relaxation strategies, or from physicality - the expression of energy through the use of the body. For more information on ways to expel excess energy, click here.

We can provide ourselves with a distraction by focusing on our senses. Here we can identify something we can touch, we can taste, we can smell, we can see. Describe it out loud. We can take a shower or brush our teeth. We can eat something and focus on the taste or smell. 

Emotional regulation is the ability to control how our emotions fluctuate over time and how those emotions are expressed. This ability is heavily influenced by the context of our environment, our culture and our personality traits. Those successful at self-regulation are able to control both how they experience their emotions as well as the physical manifestations of emotion, even at the height of a trigger (Thompson, 1991). For more information on how to enhance emotional regulation, click here.

Motivation is a complex state of mind, as well as a set of specific behaviors, that we can use as a tool to help meet a particular goal or help us live out our personal values or beliefs (Wasserman, 2020). For more information on how to enhance internal motivation, click here.

Humor can be an adaptive coping strategy that enables us to reevaluate and reappraise stressful events as less threatening using comedic or amusing thoughts and language. This alternate perspective creates the opportunity to use a form of storytelling to acknowledge and alleviate the impact of feelings of frustration, fear, anxiety, anger or pain (Dowling, 2002). For more information on humor, click here.

Cognitive behavioral therapy uses a short term, goal oriented perspective focused on identifying, challenging and altering damaging patterns of thinking, maladaptive attitudes, and internally held beliefs that influence how we react to stressors. For more information on cognitive behavioral therapy, click here. 

When we form relationships with others, whether at work, at home or within a social setting, we must set limits and rules on how those interactions will go in order to maintain our sense of self and our comfort level (UCB, 2016). For more information on boundaries, click here.

Alternative and complementary therapies include music and art therapy, massage, yoga, aromatherapy and much more. Click here to explore ways to improve overall well-being with alternative approaches to health.

Adaptive Defense Mechanisms

Mature and adaptive defenses allow us to accept reality as it is, while postponing our reaction to it until we have had the time needed to process the full extent of our situation. Here we try to be flexible in our thinking and more resilient to stress. This helps us access our full mental capacity. Also, by withholding impulsive actions, we preserve potential solutions available through social interactions and negotiations. Such defenses include (Sadock, 1996):

  • Sublimation: Acknowledging our unacceptable impulses and channeling that energy into socially acceptable behavior.
    • Joining a contact sport league to relieve feelings of aggression.
  • Suppression: Making a conscious effort to forget something unpleasant.
    • Deciding to worry about an unsafe driver once we're off the road.
  • Altruism: Engaging in acts of service for others to avoid negative feelings about the self and experience vicarious pleasure.
    • Volunteering at a blood bank to reduce a sense of helplessness in the face of gun violence.
  • Humor: Expressing feelings and thoughts using lightness and levity.

Roadblocks to Adaptation

Adaptives and maladaptives are similar in that they are a set of thoughts, coping strategies and behaviors used to interact with the world. However, maladaptives cause harm to self and others by limiting our ability to work within groups, understand and interact with the world around us, and problem-solve in a way that meets our needs. For more information on what maladapatives are and how to deal with them, click here.