Defense mechanisms are a way for the mind to cope with stress or difficult feelings. They are unconscious mechanisms, which means that a person uses them without realizing it.
Defense mechanisms can be positive ways to deal with stress. Other times, they can be unhelpful ways to avoid difficult emotions or excuse unhealthy or antisocial behavior.
Recognizing defense mechanisms can help a person understand their own behavior.
Below, we explore eight defense mechanisms. We also describe mental health conditions that may be associated with the routine use of certain mechanisms.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud developed the idea of defense mechanisms as a way to understand human behavior. Freud proposed that people use defense mechanisms unconsciously, as a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings and emotions.
Below are some frequently used defense mechanisms:
This involves a person not recognizing the reality of a stressful situation in order to protect themselves from overwhelming fear or anxiety.
Denial can be helpful in situations that are beyond a person’s control. For example, staying optimistic can benefit a person as they try to overcome a serious illness.
On the other hand, denial can stop a person from dealing with situations that require their attention. For example, it may be easier to ignore the negative effects of excessive drinking than it is to cut down on alcohol.
Distortion involves a person believing something to be true when it is not.
In some cases, distortion can protect a person from the uncomfortable reality of a situation. For example, a person may believe that they failed a test because of difficult questions, not because they did not prepare fully.
In other cases, distortion can convince a person that a situation is worse than it actually is. For example, a person may only see the negative in a situation and ignore the positive.
Distorted thinking is a common feature of anxiety and depression. It is also common among people with the following disorders:
People with the above conditions often have a distorted perception of their own body image.
Projection involves a person accusing someone else of having thoughts or feelings that they themselves are having. It can be a way of avoiding unwanted thoughts or avoiding responsibility for a particular behavior.
For example, a person who realizes that they are being aggressive during an argument may accuse the other person of aggression. This deflects criticism away from themselves and onto the other person.
Projection can be harmful, as it may stop someone from accepting and taking responsibility for their own thoughts or behaviors.
Dissociation involves feeling disconnected from a stressful or traumatic event — or feeling that the event is not really happening. It is a way to block out mental trauma and protect the mind from experiencing too much stress.
Sometimes, dissociation leaves a person unable to remember traumatic events in their past.
A person who dissociates, often in childhood or adolescence, may go on to develop a dissociative disorder. This is a particularly unhealthy form of dissociation, in which a person dissociates involuntarily and routinely.
Repression involves avoiding thinking about something to block out painful or uncomfortable feelings, emotions, and impulses. Repression is an unconscious process — a person is unaware that they are doing it.
A person may unconsciously repress a painful or difficult memory, but the memory remains. One aim of psychotherapy is to encourage a person to express repressed thoughts in order to deal with them in a more helpful way.
Repression could help explain the root of certain phobias. For example, some unexplained phobias may stem from traumatic childhood experiences that the person has since repressed.
Suppression is similar to repression, but suppression is a conscious process, it involves deliberately avoiding certain thoughts or memories and actively trying to forget them.
6. Reaction formation
Reaction formation involves acting in a way that contradicts unacceptable or anxiety-provoking thoughts or feelings as they arise. It is a way of protecting the mind from uncomfortable thoughts or desires.
For example, a person may experience normal feelings of sadness or disappointment after a relationship breaks down. If they feel that these emotions are unacceptable, they may publicly act as if they are happy or unconcerned.
Reaction formation can be a pattern of ongoing behavior. For example, a person who feels that expressing anger or frustration toward a parent is unacceptable may never react negatively to anything that their parent says or does, even when this would be a normal response.
Displacement involves a person feeling that they cannot express a negative emotion toward a particular person, so they direct those negative emotions toward someone else.
For example, a person who feels that their boss has been unfair may also fear being fired if they complain or express anger — and as a result, they may later shout at a family member.
Displacement can have negative consequences for an individual and the people around them.
Intellectualization involves a person using reason and logic to avoid uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking emotions.
Intellectualization can be a useful way of explaining and understanding negative events. For example, if person A is rude to person B, person B may think about the possible reasons for person A’s behavior. They may rationalize that person A was having a stressful day.
However, intellectualization can cause people to downplay the importance of their own feelings and focus instead on treating all difficult situations as problems that need to be solved. This can stop a person from learning how to deal with their own difficult emotions.
Defense mechanisms are psychological ways of helping a person deal with uncomfortable or traumatic situations or emotions.
However, some people fall into a pattern of routinely using defense mechanisms to avoid addressing uncomfortable emotions or unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Defense mechanisms are a common feature of depression and anxiety. Often, people with these conditions have become reliant on defense mechanisms as a way of dealing with trauma or anxiety.
While these mechanisms may help prevent or limit discomfort in the short term, they are not a long-term solution.
Distortion and dissociation are particularly common in people with certain mental health conditions. Distortion often affects people with body image disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and BDD.
Dissociation can be a feature of post-traumatic stress disorder, better known as PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Developing defense mechanisms is a part of normal development, and these mechanisms can be positive ways of handling difficult situations. However, repeated use of defense mechanisms may hinder a person’s ability to deal with their own feelings and emotions.
Some people become stuck in patterns of thinking that rely on defense mechanisms. This can negatively affect the person and their relationships with others.
With the right treatment, people can find positive ways of dealing with uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Over time, the use of unhelpful defense mechanisms should diminish.
The right treatment for a person who routinely uses defense mechanisms depends on the types of mechanisms that they use and whether they have any underlying mental health conditions. Some options include:
This can help a person explore the thoughts and feelings that may be behind a particular defense mechanism. Therapy may involve one-to-one sessions or group sessions.
Some people benefit from lifestyle changes that help them manage their stress levels.
Better stress management can help reduce the need for defense mechanisms. Some helpful techniques include:
- regular exercise or physical activity
- relaxation therapy
A person may require medication for an underlying mental health condition. Depending on the condition, these treatments may include:
Defense mechanisms are a natural part of human psychology. They help the mind cope with uncomfortable or traumatic situations or emotions.
However, some people routinely use defense mechanisms as a way of avoiding their feelings and emotions or excusing their behavior. This can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health and relationships.
If a person is continually relying on unhelpful patterns of thinking, they may wish to seek support from a qualified therapist.
With the right treatment, people can reduce their use of defense mechanisms and learn to address their feelings and emotions in a more positive and constructive way.