Understanding Regression Psychology

By: Joy Youell

Updated September 20, 2021

Regression describes the dynamic of backsliding or feeling stuck in an immature thought or pattern of behavior. When you're regressing, you may feel like you're acting childish, but you don't know how to stop. You may also find yourself craving attention, or you may be in a relationship that causes you to revert to old habits. Understanding regression and the ways it might show up in your life can help you move past it.

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There are many seasons and stages of human development. In each of these phases, different kinds of behaviors drive us to have our needs met. As we mature, we move beyond juvenile behaviors into behaviors that are more appropriate for adults. Sometimes, however, we encounter stressors or relationships that trigger us to revert to a previous developmental stage. This can be a challenging experience. In this article, we'll talk about regression in detail, along with some of the tools that can be used to address it.

What Is A Regression in Psychology?

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, categorized regression as an unconscious defense mechanism. He believed that regression causes the temporary or long-term ego to revert to an earlier developmental stage. This can happen to both children and adults.

  • Childhood regression: Surprisingly, it is believed that regression as one of the defense mechanisms in psychology is more common during childhood than adulthood. It can be triggered by traumatic events, stress, or frustration. Children usually have a specific way of showing that they've regressed to communicate with them. If the situation is handled quickly and properly, the regressive behavior will begin to diminish and eventually disappear.
  • Adult regression: In adults, regression as one of the defense mechanisms can appear at any age. When it happens, an adult will retreat to an earlier stage of development-though rare, adults have been known to revert to the age of a toddler and even to the advanced stages of infancy. Any situation that provokes fear, anxiety, anger, insecurity, or other negative emotions can cause this kind of regression. During the episode, most individuals will revert to a time in their lives when they felt safe, likely a time from their developmental years.

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In general, most psychoanalysts believe that regression appears during times of extreme stress. Individuals often revert to a time when they had less stress or no stress at all compared to their present living conditions. They also usually revert to a time when a parent or other guardian could potentially protect them from their current situation.

Despite disagreement from many psychoanalysts, renowned psychologist Carl Jung described regression as a positive psychological behavior. He believed it was an attempt to cope and was therefore an effective defense mechanism.

Manifestations of Regression

According to psychoanalysts, the behaviors observed during regression often correlate with the psychological stage in which the person is fixated. For example, a person fixated at the phallic stage would exhibit physical symptoms from the age when the phallic stage is first encountered.

Similarly, any individual fixated at the oral stage might suck on a pen or fiddle with their mouth, and an individual fixated at the anal stage could be messy or untidy. Finally, an individual who has regressed in an extreme case may stop talking as if they were a baby in a preverbal stage. All of these manifestations can be addressed by a mental health professional.

Common Regressive Behaviors

Other regressive behaviors are easy to identify. For example, temper tantrums in children are common until they reach school age. Young children may throw temper tantrums because they are tired or hungry. This behavior often includes screaming, crying, pounding on the walls or the floor, kicking, throwing things, and even abusive behavior toward parents or caretakers. (It's worth noting that preschoolers with depression usually display more violence during temper tantrums compared to preschoolers without any mental diagnoses.)

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Parents with small children are commonly referred to therapists because they don't know what to do when their children regularly throw temper tantrums. Believe it or not, adults can have temper tantrums, too, and for many of the same reasons. Under great stress, adults with temper tantrums exhibit many of the behaviors exhibited by young children. Some adults may even resort to "baby talk" during regression. Extremely regressed individuals can manifest their regression by assuming a fetal position, while others may cry. Still, others may cuddle with a stuffed animal or another inanimate object.

Regression in Hospitalized Patients

Hospitalized patients with regressive behavior are sometimes referred to as "agitated." In fact, agitation and regressive behaviors are similar. Both can harm the individual and those around him or her. Regression can become especially problematic in a hospital setting due to lack of personal space, strict hospital procedures, and a rigid staff.

How Can Regression Be Evaluated?

Although there are few evidence-based studies on diagnosing regressive behaviors, diagnoses for regression are possible. The medical professional making the diagnosis should study and evaluate a thorough history, including medical, social, psychiatry, medication, and substance abuse. All of this information can provide clues about what is happening with the individual's health and wellbeing.

Laboratory screening should include a full blood count, metabolic panel, urinalysis, and toxicology screens. Head imaging and other studies can be obtained when a disease is being considered. If a neurologic or other illness is suspected, consultants can be involved in further evaluations and testing.

Any clinician who suspects regressive behavior should immediately evaluate the patient because some issues may require urgent treatment. In adults and children, the regressive behavior often escalates when it is ignored, especially when a patient resorts to regression as any way to communicate.

How Can One Manage Regression?

The first step in managing regression is to address any underlying medical, neurologic, or psychiatric problems. Depending on the problems identified, several interventions can be employed. Then, a qualified therapist or medical professional can identify the symptoms of regression and provide a clear path for recovery.

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Behavioral interventions include empathizing with people who are acting regressively and talk therapy. Pharmacologic interventions include using antidepressants for individuals with depression; benzodiazepines for individuals with catatonia, fear, or anxiety; and even antipsychotics for individuals with anxiety, fear, and psychosis. If needed, pain management can be a useful addition to the treatment plan.

Substance Abuse and Regression

Patients who become intoxicated or who go through withdrawal may display regressive behaviors. In addition, any patient intoxicated with drugs, especially opioids, may become agitated, presenting with memory issues and/or slurred speech. Alcohol intoxication always causes impairment in memory and impulsivity, and with regressive issues, it becomes even more dangerous.

Patients with various psychotic disorders can have disorganized thoughts and behaviors, and they can show a lack of motivation. Combined with regression or other regressive behaviors, these serious disorders require urgent treatment.

Online Treatment for Regression

You may find yourself acting in ways that appear regressive. Sometimes a person fixates on the past or acts in a way that's considered juvenile. If you think that trauma in your past, stress in your present, or other issues may be triggering regression, it's important to seek treatment from a mental health professional. BetterHelp is a community of online therapists who are licensed and able to meet your needs. You can find help on your schedule and in the convenience of your own home.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What causes psychological regression?

Psychological regression tends to occur when an individual is exposed to causes of extreme stress or repeated stressful events. Regressive behaviors are a form of defense mechanism against stressful events. Stressful events include accidents, illness, death of a loved one, and so on. Regressive behavior is often seen in children as often as regression in adults.

What is regression behavior?

Regressive behaviors are unconscious psychological strategies that an individual exposed to continuous or extreme stress uses to cope. According to lectures on psychoanalysis, the individual has his or her ego return to an earlier stage of development. Examples of regressive behaviors include tantrum-throwing, sucking of the thumbs, bedwetting, babble instead of coherent words, crawling into a fetal position, and so on. Regressive behaviors tend to occur in children, but regression in adults is also commonly seen.

What are examples of regression?

Regression as one of the different kinds of defense mechanisms comes with diverse behaviors. Regressive behaviors can be anything from heading banging, throwing temper tantrums, requesting a stuffed animal, sucking the thumbs, bedwetting, crawling into a fetal position, and uncontrollable tears and so on. The display of any one of the regressive behaviors does not necessarily mean that an individual has regressed.  

What is age regression psychology?

Age regression psychology is sometimes used to get an individual to a difficult time in the individual's past. It can be done with the help of hypnosis. However, age regression psychology can be very dangerous when tried by people who are not professionals as it can bring up false memories. When practiced by an experienced psychotherapist, age regression psychology can help overcome problems rooted in the past.

How do you treat regression?

Regressive behaviors can be treated by dealing with the underlying stressor causing them. The stressors can be dealt with directly through behavioral interventions, pharmacologic interventions, or non-pharmacologic interventions. The decision and the method to be used to treat regressive behaviors lies eventually in the hands of a trained and licensed physician or therapist.       

Is regression a defense mechanism?

In introductory lectures to psychoanalysis, one might learn about Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that regression is an unconscious defense mechanism which might be detrimental when seen in adults. Many modern-day disciples of Freud also believe the same. Some others, however, like Freud's friend Carl Jung believed that regression is a positive experience and that an individual attempts to achieve something important: a sense of innocence, security, trust, and love.  

Why is my child regressing?

Regression, as one of the defense mechanisms, is common and often normal when seen in children. Children sometimes find it difficult to communicate their needs, and when this happens, they often turn to regressive behaviors. If you are worried about a change in your child’s behavior, your child’s pediatrician is immediately notified, as it might be a pointer to something important.

Does regression always mean autism?

Regression does not always mean autism. Certain regressive behaviors can be seen in individuals with autism; however, these same symptoms can also be seen in other children who do not have autism.

What is the difference between repression and regression?

Repression is when a certain feeling is subdued or directed toward a pleasurable instinct because it’s said to be socially unacceptable. In simpler terms, it is a defense mechanism used to subdue certain thoughts out of consciousness. Repressive behavior might be a significant risk factor. On the other hand, regression is an emotional defense that goes on unconsciously. It simply implies going back into a state of physical or mental development.

What is Agere?

Agere is another term used to describe age regression. This term is commonly used in online communities that support people who have experienced age regression.

What is regression used for?

Regression is typically used as a therapeutic technique. The therapy technique was developed out of the many theories and techniques of psychoanalysis and hypnotherapy. It’s one of the many psychological strategies used by mental health professionals to help the patients look back to painful times in their lives.

Does Bipolar make you make you act like a child?

In adults, there’s a tendency for mood swings due to bipolar disorder. However, Bipolar doesn't typically make adults act like children. Being bipolar is different from Peter Pan Syndrome. The syndrome is known to affect those who do not want to grow up. Usually, people with the syndrome have the body of an adult but act like a child.

What is regressive autism?

Regressive autism is a regressive behavior that occurs when a kid looks like he or she is undergoing normal development. However, the child starts to lose social skills and speech. Regressive autism usually occurs between the ages of fifteen to thirty months. Common causes of these are a change in the routine of a child. For instance, changing the baby’s nanny, or enrolling the baby into preschool.

What causes CDD?

CDD is known as Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. It typically occurs in kids that seem to be going through the normal developmental processes but suddenly start to regress. As of this moment, the cause of this regressive behavior is unknown. The condition develops over time and typically begins when the child is four years.

What is Regression Mental Health?

Regression, as one of the psychologicaldefense mechanisms, is a concept used in psychiatry, psychology, and hypnotherapy. As a mental health-related phenomenon, regression mental health by clinicians to help several individuals cope with anxiety or fear while experiencing significant pain or distress. Regression mental health can be an effective therapeutic technique used to help patients return to their painful periods (earlier stage of development in their lives). Regression mental health can help find healing and overcome trauma.
What are the Signs of Regression?

The signs of regression as part of originaldefense mechanisms are seen in emotional outbursts that involve shouting, crying, or throwing tantrums. It also involves acting childishly, getting overwhelmed when confronted, and feeling shut down.

Can you control age regression?

Age regression has no inherent risk. It's best practiced as a form of relaxation or self-help when you are around people who understand it as one of the defense mechanisms and when you're in a safe place.

However, if you find it difficult to control age regression and constantly reverting to a younger age, the appropriate thing to do is to talk to a mental health professional. This is because the symptoms of the issue you have may require special mental health attention. These symptoms may include schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, schizoaffective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, dementia, borderline personality disorder. Age regression occurs in personality disorders when several individuals come face to face with triggers or distressing memories.

What Mental Disorder Makes you Act Like a Child?

Although acting like a child is related to Peter pan syndrome, it's clinically inappropriate to refer to peter pan syndrome as a mental disorder. Age digression is observed to be common in people who are diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID)—formerly called multiple personality disorder.  If you have this mental disorder, there is a possibility that you will have a younger personality frequently when you find yourself among your distinctive personalities. Dissociative identity disorder will make you feel like you're a different age which results in childish mannerisms such as talking and behaving like a child.
Do Therapists Recommend Age Regression?

Age regression is seen as a form of therapy described in hypnotherapy as a process where patients are made to go back to the earlier stage of lives purposely to access a memory or some personalities which they find difficult to explore.

Therapists may recommend age regression, sometimes, to help patients with self-projection in order to see the consequences of their current negative behavior or the desired outcome.

Furthermore, age regression is believed to be an effective form of therapy that can help a child to redo, at a later age, an earlier stage of development that he or she has missed.

What is the Concept of Regression?

The concept of regression, as one of the defense mechanisms, simply refers to the process of returning to the earlier developmental stages. Through regression, you will abandon every form of gratification and go back to your easier stages due to conflicts, dangers, or stressful situations experienced at the later stage of your life.

Can you Mentally Regress?

Yes, regression occurs mentally and emotionally. This occurs when you find yourself in a situation where you feel much younger than your biological age — this feeling is not a good one as you may tend to act as you did as a child.

Furthermore, when you regress mentally or emotionally, you may become overly sensitive, your reaction will not tally with the present event, you will tend to overreact to people's actions and statements. This happens basically because your actions are stimulated in a place where you are vulnerable which then results in momentarily regress to an earlier developmental stage of your life.

In addition, you can mentally regress back in time when someone makes a move that triggers something inside your psyche which makes you experience a sort of déjà vu. It's important to know that when you regress mentally and emotionally, in most times, you will also regress behaviorally.

What Age Does Regressive Autism Start?

From a wider perspective, it's clearly observed that regressive autism starts when a child is about 24 months; however, it can be exhibited as early as six months or as late as seven years.

How Do you Regress?

You can regress as a child or as an adult. When you regress, it can easily be seen in your behaviors which can come in different stages such as an oral and anal stage. In the oral stage, you may begin to eat or smoke excessively or become verbally aggressive. In the anal stage, regression may lead to excessive tiredness or messiness.

 You can regress by reverting to the developmental stage of your life—a time when you felt safer. Sigmund Freud believed that regression, as one of the defense mechanisms, may lead to reverting (temporary or long-term) of your ego to an earlier stage of development because you are unable to accept a specific impulse in a more adaptive way. So, when you revert, your personality switches to an earlier stage of development which consequently makes you have childish mannerisms.


Regression, as one of the defense mechanisms, involves reverting to a previous stage development as a response to stressful situations. A trained counselor can help you manage your stress and move past regressive behaviors. BetterHelp counselors can provide the support you need-take the first step.

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