Understanding Regression Psychology

By Nadia Khan

Updated December 18, 2018

Reviewer Michelle Lind

What Is A Regression in Psychology?

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, categorized regression as an unconscious defense mechanism. Freud believed that regression caused reversion of the temporary or long-term ego to revert to an earlier developmental stage. Freud believed that the only other choice for the individual would be to handle the situation as an adult in an adult manner and not regress into childhood.

It is believed that unlike adults, regression is more typical during childhood. Regression during childhood can be brought on by any severely traumatic event, stress, or frustration. Children have a specific way of showing this regression to communicate what has happened to them or what is currently happening to them. If the situation is dealt with relatively quickly and properly, the regressive behavior will begin to retract and eventually disappear.

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In adults, regression can come forth and finally present itself at any age of their life. The adult will retreat to an earlier stage that can revert to any given time during his or her life-even so far as being a toddler, and even advanced stages of infancy have been rumored. Any situation that causes fear, anxiety, anger, insecurity, or any negative emotions can bring it about. During regression, most individuals will revert to a time in their lives that they felt safer (sometimes that was usually during their developmental years) than in their current living conditions.

Some psychoanalysts feel just the opposite. They feel that regression will come to the forefront when present times are especially stressful for the individual. They 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 be their protector from the situation they are currently in, whether they acted as a protector or not.

Renowned psychologist, Carl Jung described regression as more of a positive psychological behavior and defense mechanism more than other psychoanalysts in the past. Some other psychoanalysts believed that an individual's lapse into regression was not just a relapse to a younger stage. He believed it was an attempt to achieve something more important such as a coping mechanism.

Manifestations of Regression

Observations of regression have been made that relate behaviors associated with regressive behaviors to a psychological stage when the person is fixated. A person fixated at the phallic stage would revert to physical symptoms or a state reaching conversion reaching complete hysteria.

For instance, any individual fixated at the oral stage might suck on a pen or have some other action with their mouth. Any individual fixated at the anal stage could be messy or untidy. However, a regressive individual may even stop talking and show the signs that a baby would show during a preverbal stage.

Common Regressive Behaviors

Other regressive behaviors are easily identified. As mentioned above, temper tantrums in children are common until they reach school age. For instance, children may throw temper tantrums because they are tired or hungry until they reach school age. Examples include screaming, crying, pounding on the walls or the floor, kicking, throwing things, and even abusive behavior toward parents or caretakers. However, preschoolers with diagnoses such as depression usually display more violence during temper tantrums compared to preschoolers without any mental diagnoses.

The most common cause of referrals to therapists for small children is because they regularly throw temper tantrums, and their parents don't know what do with them. Even their adult counterparts have temper tantrums for some of the same reasons the children do. Under great stress or duress, adults with temper tantrums exhibit many of the behaviors exhibited by 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 outcry cry. Others may even cuddle with a stuffed animal or another inanimate object

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Causes Within and Regression in Hospitalized Patients

Although there is a lack of studies that specifically address the regressive behavior in hospital patients. Hospitalized patients with regressive behavior are sometimes referred to as little more than agitated. There have not been many studies have discussed the difference between agitation and regressive behavior.

What is known, is that regression can often be often harmful and sometimes harmless for the individual and those around them during the regressive episodes. However, regression can become especially problematic for instance in a hospital setting, when there are particularly difficult situations, other individuals, lack of personal space, and a certain rigidity of hospital staff and procedures. Due to these difficulties, the environment in a hospital with all its difficulties can prolong the overall hospital stay.

Other causes during hospitalization can have many causes that include direct medical and psychiatric problems. It is important to identify the reasons for the distress that has led to the regressive behavior. This provides insight into how the behaviors might be prevented. In the future.

How Can Regression in Hospitalized Patients Be Evaluated?

Although there are few evidence-based studies on how to evaluate regressive behaviors, diagnoses for regression is part of a broad spectrum. It should only be used as a guide toward the evaluation of its potential etiologies. A thorough history, including medical, social, substance, psychiatry, medication, and substance abuse should all be studied and evaluated and can provide clues about the what is happening with the individual's health and well-being.

Laboratory screening should include a full blood count, metabolic panel, urinalysis, and toxicology screens. Head imaging and other studies can be obtained when there is a suspicion of disease. Consultants can be involved in further evaluations and testing if a neurologic or other illness is suspected.

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

How Can One Manage Regression in Hospitalized Patients?

Although there are few evidence-based studies about how to manage regression in patients as well as hospitalized patients, clinical experience suggests the first step in managing regression is to address any underlying medical, neurologic, or psychiatric problems. Depending on any problems found, several interventions can be employed.

Behavioral interventions include empathizing with patients regarding their perceived stress such as understanding their issues with regression, and then understanding those special issues regarding being in the hospital such as loneliness, fear, pain, retreatment, resentment, anxiety, and any other common emotions. Obviously before doing that, it can be helpful to first inquire how the patient is feeling and to let the individual name some of the suspected emotions he or she could be experiencing.

Sometimes an authoritative position works, and other times other approaches are better. Sometimes a parental authoritative and nurturing stance or position could de-escalate the behavior. Sometimes joining the individual as a child or fellow peer might work. It all depends on the individual, and the place of the regression that they are in,

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. At times that pain is the most important problem, pain management can be aggressively used, and can be useful. At times, electroconvulsive therapy can be used to treat patients with depression or catatonia.

Substance Abuse and Psychotic Disorders

Patients who become intoxicated or go through withdrawal from any substance may display regressive behaviors. It is a terrible mixture anytime, but an individual with regressive issues faces even more danger. Patients intoxicated with any drugs, especially opioids, may become agitated, have memory issues, or slurred speech. Alcohol intoxication always causes impairment in memory and impulsivity, and with regressive issues, it is also more dangerous.

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Psychotic disorders, in general, are "severe mental disorders characterized by the individual experiencing an altered state of reality, or by impairments in the individual's ability to respond or communicate effectively or behave appropriately." Categories of psychotic disorders include brief unspecific psychotic disorders, catatonia, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder.

Patients with various psychotic disorders can have disorganized thoughts and behaviors, showing a lack of motivation, being poorly groomed, or disrobing, and other lewd acts which can easily be categorized as regressive behaviors. Since these examples of psychotic disorders are extremely serious, when combined with regression or other regressive behaviors they are extremely dangerous and should be immediately dealt with.


Regression means retreating to an earlier developmental form of function whether it is socially, behaviorally, or emotionally during times of immediate and re-introduced stressful situations. Also, inpatient hospitalization increases stress for many patients. Ignoring regression usually furthers the problem and should be dealt with immediately. Although there is no evidenced-based cure for regression, several interventions have proved useful in caring for patients with regressive behavior.

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Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defense. SE, 3: 41-61.

Pedersen, T. (2018). Regression. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 14, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/encyclopedia/regression/

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