What Are Defense Mechanisms In Psychology?

Defense mechanisms are the way your mind copes with stress or difficult feelings. They are unconscious mechanisms, which means that you use them without realizing it. They can be a positive way to deal with stress, but other times they will not help you avoid difficult emotions or excuse unhealthy or antisocial behavior. Recognizing your defense mechanisms can be helpful to understand your behavior. These are the frequently used defense mechanisms:

  1. Denial
    This mechanism involves not recognizing the reality of a stressful situation in order to protect yourself from overwhelming fear or anxiety. It can be helpful in certain situations that are beyond your control. For example, staying optimistic can benefit you are you try to overcome a serious illness. It can stop you from dealing with situations that require your attention like ignoring negative effects from excessive drinking rather than cutting down on alcohol.
  2. Distortion
    Distortion is when you believe something to be true when it is not. It can protect you from uncomfortable realities of a situation. It can also convince a person that a situation is worse than it actually is. Distorted thinking can be a common feature of anxiety, depression, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
  3. Projection
    Projection involves someone accusing someone else of having thoughts or feelings that they themselves are having. It may be their way of avoiding unwanted thoughts or avoiding responsibility for a certain behavior. For example, a person who realizes that they are are the aggressor during an argument, but accuse the other person of being aggressive. They deflect criticism away from themselves and onto the other person. It can be harmful because it may stop them from accepting and taking responsibility for their own thoughts and/or behaviors.
  4. Dissociation
    Often a feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Dissociation is the feelings of disconnection from a stressful or traumatic event, or feeling that the event is not really happening. It can be a way to block out mental trauma and protect your mindset from experiencing too much stress. Sometimes, it can leave you unable to remember traumatic events in the past. This often happens in childhood or adolescence and can develop into a dissociative disorder. It is unhealthy because it can become involuntary and routine.
  5. Repression
    Involves avoiding thinking about something in order to block out painful or uncomfortable feelings, emotions, and impulses. It is a unconscious process and you usually are unaware that you are doing it. You may unconsciously repress a painful or difficult memory, but the memory will remain. Psychotherapy will encourage you to express those repressed thoughts in order to deal with them in a more healthy and helpful way. It can also explain the root of some phobias stemming from traumatic childhood experiences. Repression and suppression are different in that, suppression involves deliberately avoiding certain thoughts or memories and trying to forget them.
  6. Reaction Formation
    Reaction formation is when you act in a way that contradicts unacceptable or anxiety-provoking thoughts or feelings as they arise. It usually is your way of protecting the mind from uncomfortable thoughts or desires. For example, after relationship breaks/breakups it is normal to feel sad or disappointed. If you feel that those emotions are unacceptable, you may act as if you are happy or unconcerned. It can be a pattern of ongoing behavior. A person who expresses anger or frustration toward a parent is unacceptable will never react negatively to anything that the parent says or does. Even if it would have been a normal response.
  7. Displacement
    Displacement is when you feel that you cannot express a negative emotion toward a particular person, so you will direct those negative emotions towards someone else. If you feel that your boss has been unfair, but also fear getting fired if you complain or express anger, you may shout at a family member later.
  8. Intellectualization
    Intellectualization involves you using reason and logic to avoid uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking emotions. It can be useful to explain and understand negative events. An example of this may be that someone was being ruse to you, and you think about possible reasons for their behavior thinking that they must be having a stressful day. Intellectualization can cause you to downplay the importance of your own feelings and instead focus on treating all difficult situations as problems that need to be solved.

Treatment Options

The development of defense mechanisms is a part of normal development. Repeated use of defense mechanisms may hinder your ability to deal with your feelings and emotions. Some people become reliant on patterns of defense mechanisms. With the right treatment, you can find positive ways of dealing with uncomfortable feelings and emotions. You may not notice an immediate change if you have relied on your defense mechanisms for some time, but over time they can diminish. Here are some useful treatment options that have proven to help:

Talking Therapy
Talking things through with a professional can be helpful in figuring out the thoughts and feelings behind particular defense mechanisms. It can include one-on-one or group sessions.

Stress Management
You may benefit from making some lifestyle changes to help manage your stress levels. Here are some things you can do to help stress issues:

  1. regular exercise or physical activity
  2. yoga
  3. meditation
  4. relaxation therapy

You may require medication for other underlying mental health conditions. Depending on the situation, the medication may be:

  • antidepressants
  • anti-anxiety medications
  • antipsychotics

If you continue to rely on the use of defense mechanisms in order to avoid your feelings, emotions, or use excuses for behaviors, you may consider seeking support from a qualified therapist. It can have a negative impact on your mental health and relationships. With the right treatment, you can reduce the use of defense mechanisms and learn to address your feelings and emotions in a more healthy and constructive way.

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