Understanding Regression Psychology

By Joy Youell

Updated March 19, 2020

Reviewer Michelle Lind

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 stage of development. 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 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 what is happening to them. If the situation is handled quickly and properly, the regressive behavior will begin to diminish and will eventually disappear.
  • Adult regression: In adults, regression 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.

Read the reviews below to learn more about BetterHelp counselors.

Counselor Reviews

"I have come a long way. With the help of Alexis, I have accomplished things I thought I'd never do. I am glad I did this, it has benefited me so much. With the guidance and encouragement of Alexis, I am more confident in myself and I see a clear path to success and happiness. I have learned to control myself and not doubt myself. It is hard to let go but I know I will be fine and if I need she will still be here for me. Thank you Alexis you have truly helped me change my life. I am so grateful. I wish you the best!"

"Before I started my sessions with BetterHelp and Dr. Celosse, my life and my psyche were in complete disarray. I was struggling immensely and I was getting so frustrated that I saw no hope in sight. I though people around me were trying to help, but it was only by talking with Dr. Celosse that I have finally been able to make some grounds on myself. With just a few weeks of interaction with her, I have been able to make progress from my childhood that I never even thought I could escape. It is only with her help and with her guidance that I feel I am at this point."


Regression 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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