Adaptation Psychology

The past funnels through the present and shines on the future. The present moment is the gateway through which everything flows. Life is always felt in the now. Environments, pasts, thoughts and current triggers converge zapping our soul in the moment and we feel the experience of life. How we respond to these critical moments shapes future moments, giving and taking from opportunities and joys. Each moment is precious and critical to living. Learning effective action in response to emotions aroused by present circumstances becomes our task. In psychology, we call this process adaptation. When we master this, we create futures with less stress and more joys.

Our moments will never be perfect. Life will never be void of strains. We evolved to survive in a complex world of diverse and unpredictable demands. Emotions are an integral part of the biological system enabling healthy responses to unpredictable environments. Jolting the moment with life is the flow of emotion, programmed by the past, and interpretations of the present.

Key Definition:

Adaptation Psychology refers to the area of psychology dealing with organisms survival instinct to adapt to external environments and conditions.

Our developing minds create connections from the known; but life surprises, veering from well-known paths into murky deviations, where our assessments lack sufficient facts, and we poke in the darkness with vague guesses of meaning. Our emotions give rise to action from the crumbs of knowledge we unconsciously deem as applicable. However, these emotional urges to act are imprecise and occasionally mislead.

​Adapting to the Moment

We adapt to the moment, where all choices are made, in many healthy and unhealthy ways.

The framework of pasts, emotions, present, choice and future are the basis of psychology, philosophy and religion. Men and women have studied, debated and speculated about this entire process and of the finite pieces of this process for many millennia. Yet, now in the twenty-first century we still struggle and rejoice—different but the same. We still stumble through life adapting to an unpredictable world.

“Through adaptation, we are able to adopt new behaviors that allow us to cope with change.”

~Kendra Cherry | verywellmind

In the moment, whether 1000 B.C. or 2018 A.D., we collide with experience and that experience ignites emotions that push for action. A healthy life adapts to the flow of emotions and reacts in an effective manner. The emotion is not wrong, even if it prompts ineffective or destructive action,, just our interpretation of the emotion and behavioral reaction. Emotions aren’t right or wrong; good or bad; they just are—a perfect construction of the past, the environment, and biological givens.

T. Franklin Murphy recently wrote, “we experience the world, responding to incoming stimuli. We perceive, process and react. Our responses, however, may not always be adaptive. Sometimes we efficiently respond, effortlessly reacting, moving towards goals and avoiding disasters. Other times our response is muddied with over thinking or thoughtless emotional reactions, complicating relationships and destroying goals” (2022). 

We can’t recklessly adapt. We must combine information from internal and external sources, only then can we wisely adapt to the surrounding circumstances, soothe our emotions, and return to a homeostatic balance while simultaneously preparing for reduced stress in the future.

Behavioral Adaptations

Elling Ulvestad explains in his fabulous book on adaptations that, “an organism’s environmental conditions vary considerably through time and space, and any given animal will therefore make frequent ‘mistakes’ that may be fatal if it does not adapt to those circumstances.” He continues, “adaptive plasticity has, in many respects, made homo sapiens into an all time evolutionary winner” (2007, p. 81).

Emotions and Psychological Adaptations

Emotions, however, are not always in line with our desires for the future. We may be impelled to scream, hit, run from or embrace events, people and circumstances that distract from the life we wish to live. We can construct a life that avoids extreme emotions where we tend to act foolishly. But even with strict and guided planning, life happens, the unexpected approaches, and emotions are triggered.

​In a destructive cycle, we act wrong and invite more distressing events into our futures, evoking emotion, blinding choice and engaging in more stupidity.

A healthy adaptive style responds differently to life. Even with extreme emotions, the wise soften the experience, redirect action and respond to the betterment of their futures. The obstacles become the building blocks of wisdom. The wise still invoke mechanisms to cope. But those mechanism—adaptations—smooth the crashing waves of emotion into manageable tides that gently crawl forward and recede back on the soft shores of their lives.

Each adaptation to emotion has some utility, often healthy to a point and then the utility begins to decline. Some have very limited value and quickly destroy while other adaptations can be used extensively before declining in effectiveness.

Life creates stressors and we physiologically respond to the stressors. This is our way of adapting. Depending on the allostatic load, the stressors have a cost, desensitizing and even damaging cells. Our body does its best to predict upcoming stressors, prepare physiologically by releasing hormones and firing neurons in preparation for action—a process called allostasis.

Adaptations Automatic and Unconscious

Most adaptations have quietly operated beneath consciousness, unaware of their presence they work magic and never are challenged. While we will never eradicate unconscious mechanisms, we can bring some of the operations to the light and limit their interference with desired futures, slowly transforming our adaptive style to bless our lives.

This demands greater awareness. We no longer can move on an automatic mode, crashing into experience, feeling intense emotions and allowing the mind to adapt as it always has—unconscious living. Improvement requires some knowledge of what it is we are looking for. What adaptations do people typically employ and what are their strengths and weaknesses? Where do we challenge and where do we simply allow the protective mechanism to work its magic and make life more palatable?

The following list is not comprehensive nor a strictly followed dogma. Each mechanism is intertwined with the others, without rigid boundaries. Most adaptations can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the extent of use. These are generalities to direct attention to defensive thought patterns possibly harming our futures.

Unconscious Adaptations


As mentioned earlier, the purpose of emotions is to instigate action. A process that largely operates beneath consciousness. Sometimes the action is unhelpful, our pasts programmed emotions ill matched for the present, guiding action that hampers and destroys futures.

​Justification fails to intervene in these actions. Justification allows the emotional drives to push action unattended by thoughtful interventions. After action, we quash the emotional drive. The behavior fulfilled the purpose. But now values, ethics and purposes are left to contend with conflicting behaviors. Justification intercedes to mellow the guilt, sorrow, and cognitive dissonance. The mind identifies elements outside of ourselves that caused the action. “It’s not my fault,” we muse, “left to my own, I would have done the right thing.”

This adaptation fails to address the core dangers of inappropriate impulses, repeated failures, and a half-awake existence. The adaptation does, however, soften disabling emotions of guilt and shame.

“Much like certain physical traits may survive from generation to generation when they help an organism survive, current research indicates some psychological traits, or adaptations, may act in similar ways.”

~Good Therapy


When actions are mismatched with intentions, we are faced with a decision to relieve the dissonance—change actions, change dreams, or disconnect from reality.  The shift from reality-based associations between present behaviors and dreams to latching onto fantasy visions of a future without recognition of the necessary steps leading to the goal. We typically center fantasy on obtainable goals. We fantasize not about the end goal but magically concoct a vision of an easy path.

Fantasies alleviate suffering of a dissatisfying present. The fantasy grants tranquility through escape. We envision pains and anxiety as temporary, fantasizing about a sweeping that will wipe them all away.

The liability in fanciful thinking is the missing nexus between dreams and actions. Either we are misinformed on actions to take or willfully ignorant. Either way the dream fails to motivate necessary action, and the fantasy’s sole purpose is alleviation of present anxieties.

“Change is continuous in everything. From our human view, change may be fast or slow, visible or invisible, consciously known or unknown. We experience change internally within our thoughts, physical body, and emotions.”

~Betty Luceigh PhD  | Psychology Today


When life completely overwhelms, we shut our eyes and pretend none of it exists through denial. The obvious facts surrounding the cheating husband, the failing business, and the drug addicted child are justified and ignored. Instead of dealing with harsh realities, we break up reality into small bites and externalize our failures to elements outside of ourselves. The body knows these traumatic events are present, creating anxiety, but we push conscious recognition away, and allow the disasters to loom in the shadows, and destroy without protective interventions.


We’re not expected to constantly dwell on the scary, unpredictable, and uncontrollable events constantly surrounding our lives. When we devote too much energy to aspects of living beyond our control, we feel helpless and depressed. Distraction serves to momentarily relieve mind, granting necessary escape, and rejuvenating of essential energies to continue to move forward.

Not all distractions are equal in value. Some distractions are healthy and others destructive. Too much time distraction interferes with constructive action, impeding growth and damaging futures. A beer with friends may calm the soul; but beers too many nights may lead to uncontrollable alcoholism. Video games may divert attention from work; but also drain time from important relationships. Mature adaptations often rely on healthy distractions—a yoga class, nature walks, rejuvenating exercise.

When we structure distractions, they serve us best. We consciously acknowledge the need for escapes and plan activities to provide relief and enjoyment. The haphazard, unidentified forays into relieving distraction easily takes over our lives with chaotic addictions. Instead of serving our productivity, we begin to serve our addictions. We strain our futures with the consequences of mismanaged time and careless activities; our strained futures them require escalating distraction so we can manage the stress.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation combats destructive impulses by responding with the opposite. This adaptation may be healthy or unhealthy. Anger replaced with pacifism may avoid unnecessary conflicts but fail to protect personal rights. Sexual impulses buried beneath self-righteous rigidity may erupt in a scandal. Blind reaction formation often is inflexible, not yielding to the natural impulses. The priest is better to recognize the impulses and redirect the desires in a healthy non-destructive way.


​By adapting to experience through suppression, we feel experience but keep our reactions within measured levels. Compared to denial where unconscious forces block all feeling. We modify the impulse to judge, keeping social interactions within acceptable limits. Skilled use of suppression facilitates more relationships and healthier marriages. We feel the emotional affect but suppress reaction to achieve a greater good.


This adaptation colors judgments of others with compassion, stepping back from fears, engaging in kind considerations, and then reformatting the bias. Altruism is a highly developed adaptation to life, typically refined in later adult life. The healthy seeker curiously engages in life, recognizing biases and inviting deeper, more understanding, and compassionate explanations to combat the rude judgments of youth.

Life sometimes collides with us at furious speeds; much more than we can process in an instant. As we enter critical moments, we adapt. We do this in healthier and healthier ways; or we dull the pain through blindness, dodging our precious contacts with living. As we engage in personal examination, with a little guided help from the unbiased eyes of friends and professionals, we can unbury these hidden adaptations, examining them for effectiveness, and developing healthier approaches to life.

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Murphy. T. Franklin (2022). Wise Mind. Psychology Fanatic. Published 5-28-2022. Accessed 6-8-2022.

Ulvestad, Elling (2007). Defending Life: The Nature of Host-Parasite Relations. Springer; 2007th edition.

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