Understanding Regression In Psychology

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Regression, often defined as behavior reverting to a prior stage of development, can be a defense mechanism provoked by anxiety or stressful situations. An age-inappropriate temper tantrum can be one example of regression. Doctors and mental health professionals may conduct lab tests and various screenings to diagnose regression, and potential treatments can include addressing any underlying physical or mental health conditions, attending therapy, and taking medication. Online therapy may be an option for you if you believe you are experiencing regression.

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What is regression in psychology?

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalytic theory, categorized the psychology of regression as an unconscious defense mechanism. Freud believed that regression could cause individuals to temporarily revert to earlier stages of development. While much of Freud’s findings have been challenged in recent years, he believed there were five psychosexual development stages, including the oral stage, anal stage, phallic stage, latent stage, and genital stage.

While modern psychologists may regard these as abandoned forms of classification, some do agree that regression can cause a temporary reversion. This could lead them to use age-inappropriate impulses as coping mechanisms when experiencing stress in their everyday life. Psychoanalysts such as Michael Balint proposed a Basic Fault Theory that some people may regress due to dependency issues or trauma in childhood. As this case study demonstrates, anyone of any age may experience psychological regression.

  • Childhood Regression: Regression can be common in childhood, and children may display regressive behaviors to express unmet needs, stress, or trauma. For example, a young child may ask for their favorite stuffed animal during a stressful event, even if they had stopped using that toy previously. Often, childhood regression can be addressed by removing the underlying driver of regression.
  • Adult Regression: Like in children, regression in adults typically occurs when stress or negative emotions are experienced. In these cases, they may return to previous habits. Some adults experiencing regression may revert to a time during development when they did not feel stressed, or when a guardian figure could help them cope with stressful events.

Though some psychologists can view regression as a potentially harmful behavior, others, including Dr. Carl Jung, proposed that regression could be a positive psychological behavior and one of several effective defense mechanisms that people could have. However, managing regression may be a struggle for some people. In some cases, people may regress due to mental health conditions, in which case the help of a mental health professional may be beneficial.

Common regressive behaviors

Some regressive behaviors can be easy to identify, while other behaviors may be more difficult to classify. For example, post-preschool-aged children or adults may undergo psychological reaction formation that involves displaying age-inappropriate temper tantrums, which can include emotional outbursts, inconsolable crying, screaming, pounding on the walls or the floor, kicking, throwing things, going into the fetal position, and engaging in potentially abusive behavior toward others. Adults experiencing what may be considered earlier behavior (like regressive tantrums) can often display similar actions to children, and they may occur when a person does not know how to manage an overwhelming experience or feeling.

Hospitalized patients with regressive behaviors can sometimes be referred to as “agitated.” Agitation and regressive behaviors can be similar, and both can harm the individual and those around them. Hospital stressors may amplify these risks and ultimately require extensive hospital resources and prolonged hospital stays.

How can regression be evaluated?

Although there may be few evidence-based research studies or introductory lectures on the subject of diagnosing regressive behaviors, diagnosis can be possible. Healthcare professionals diagnosing regression may evaluate patient history, including medical, social, and psychological. Doctors may conduct laboratory tests to aid in isolating whether medical or psychological problems are responsible for regressive behavior. Many disorders can be responsible for regression, including Alzheimer’s disease. As a CNS disorder, more information about Alzheimer’s can be found in the Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders ( often shortened to Prim. Care Companion)

In general, medical professionals may screen patients with a suspected regressive tendency for a variety of other mental health disorders, including dissociative disorders. One dissociative disorder that can involve regression is dissociative identity disorder (DID), which involves someone presenting two or more distinct identities. These identities can have distinct personality traits and may involve behaving as though the person is at a different developmental stage than their primary or former identity.

How to manage regression

The first step in regression therapy is usually to address any underlying medical or psychiatric disorders. Depending on the problems identified, several interventions may be employed to overcome regression. A qualified therapist or medical professional can help you develop strategies to manage regressive behaviors and understand triggers. Medication, pain management, and talk therapy can be effective strategies to manage regression for many people. Always consult a medical professional before starting or stopping any form of medication.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people with regression manage stressors and develop healthier coping skills and mechanisms. For individuals with some of the underlying conditions that contribute to regression, including depression and borderline personality disorder, CBT can be effective in reducing those possible symptoms.

A controlled study of 840 participants found that online cognitive-behavioral therapy could be an effective alternative to in-person therapy for individuals with many types of mental health disorders. Individuals with regressive behavior, generalized anxiety disorder, or major depressive disorder may prefer to seek therapy from the comfort of their own home. Online therapy may help reduce stress and the fear of judgment that some people may associate with in-person therapy.


Regression often occurs due to trauma, stress, or extreme emotions, and it can be experienced by both children and adults. This term generally refers to a person acting in a way that reverts to an earlier stage of development. The diagnosis of regression may require testing for underlying medical conditions or psychiatric disorders, but cognitive-behavioral therapy, either in person or online, is often an effective tool. 
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