Defense Mechanisms Articles
Defense mechanisms can be defined as instinctual responses that people may use to combat feelings of distress, anxiety, or pain. Learn more about how defense mechanisms are formed, how they can hurt or help, and how to adopt healthier coping strategies when faced with difficult situations.
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Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn, LMFT, MA
Defense mechanisms can be defined as psychological reactions that people may use when they are experiencing uncomfortable emotions. They generally serve to protect the individual from feelings like anxiety, fear, or panic. The mind may want the person to feel at ease, and defense mechanisms can help the person avoid emotional pain. Defense mechanisms are often unconscious, but the person may be aware of what’s happening in some cases, especially if they’re working on adopting healthier coping techniques. Here, you can learn more about some of the different types of defense mechanisms and explore how online therapy may help you learn newer, more productive ways to handle challenging emotions.
Primitive Defense Mechanisms
Psychologists typically classify defense mechanisms according to how primitive they are.
Primitive defense mechanisms may be those that a person learns early on in life and that protect “against anxiety associated with the death instinct.”
These mechanisms tend to be less effective than our evolved ones. Some examples generally include denial, idealization, projection, and splitting.
While primitive defense mechanisms might help a person avoid pain in the short term, they are usually not a useful long-term solution. Some adults cling to primitive defense mechanisms because they previously helped them in periods of trauma. However, these emotional reactions typically don’t serve them in healing and may only make their circumstances worse.
Types of Defense Mechanisms
There are several defense mechanisms people may rely on when feeling threatened or emotionally overwhelmed.
When a person is in denial, they usually don’t want to accept the reality of what is happening in front of them. The situation could be too painful for them to confront, causing their mind to deny what’s happening to cope with the pain. Examples of circumstances that might cause someone to be in denial include finding out a loved one has unexpectedly passed away or discovering that their long-term spouse has been having an affair.
Denial is generally considered a primitive defense mechanism, and while it may help the mind avoid pain in the short term, it often leads to more discomfort later. Facing a situation head-on can be a healthier alternative that also promotes healing.
When someone is going through a difficult time and copes by bringing themselves back to a simpler time in their life, it’s typically called regression. People who use this defense mechanism often find that visiting their “happy place” is much more pleasant than living in the painful present moment.
Regression can also involve an adult retreating to an earlier developmental stage, which might include age-inappropriate behaviors like throwing a temper tantrum, banging their head, screaming, or crying uncontrollably. In moments of distress, regression can help an individual feel safe and protected. However, pain cannot be avoided forever, and the individual must eventually confront what they’re afraid of.
Dissociation can protect a person from experiencing a painful reality, such as trauma. Those using this defense mechanism may check out emotionally and physically, feeling a sense of separation from their thoughts, emotions, and identities. Some people report feeling as if they’re not in their bodies anymore and are instead looking down on themselves. They might lose their sense of time, have strange thoughts, or feel like they’re not experiencing reality. People who have experienced abuse* or trauma tend to dissociate when they’re triggered. When a person dissociates, they might be temporarily relieved of pain, allowing them to cope with the stressful situation at hand.
*If you or a loved one is witnessing or experiencing any form of abuse, please know that help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline anytime at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
People who have suffered from abuse tend to dissociate when they’re triggered. When a person dissociates, they feel disconnected from who they are and that relieves them of the pain in the present. Time and their self-image may not flow continuously, as it does for most people. Disassociation allows a person to cope with their reality by feeling as if they’re in a dream-like state.
Projection can occur when a person takes their unpleasant or painful thoughts and attributes them to another individual. By not taking ownership of their thoughts, they can reduce the pain and shame they feel surrounding their behavior. For instance, when someone cheats on their partner and then accuses their partner of cheating on them, they may be using projection.
This defense mechanism may allow them to avoid the shame they feel and place negative feelings onto someone other than themselves. Projection can serve a purpose by protecting a person from coming face to face with something they feel bad about or experiencing an emotion they don’t want to explore.
Exploring Defense Mechanisms With Therapy
Understanding why you use certain defense mechanisms can be crucial in ensuring that you’re processing your emotions in a healthy way. Therapy can provide a safe, comfortable space in which to confront and discuss your feelings without checking out emotionally.
Benefits Of Online Therapy
While talking about sensitive situations and subjects in person can be intimidating, online therapy may offer a setting that creates more distance between you and the therapist, helping you to feel more at ease during sessions. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can speak with a therapist from anywhere at any time, according to your schedule and needs. You’ll generally be able to choose between phone calls, video conferences, or online chat, depending on what you feel most comfortable with.
Effectiveness Of Online Therapy
Defense mechanisms may be successfully addressed through a therapeutic approach known as psychodynamic therapy (PDT), which normally focuses on uncovering a person’s unconscious thoughts and connecting them to their present behaviors. Research has found that online psychodynamic therapy interventions can be effective treatments for defense mechanisms, as well as mental health disorders like social anxiety disorder. In one study, researchers assessed a 10-week online PDT intervention and discovered a large treatment effect for participants. Reported changes included improvements in measures such as “social skills, negative social beliefs, public self-consciousness, defense mechanisms, personal goals,” and more.
Many defense mechanisms develop naturally to protect us from emotional harm. Others may arise over time in reaction to stressful or overwhelming situations. While defense mechanisms may delay discomfort temporarily, they can also cause more pain in the long run. Being aware of which defense mechanisms you tend to rely on can be an essential factor of self-awareness. If you need help exploring your defense mechanisms, consider reading through some of the articles in this section or speaking with an online therapist for extra support and guidance.