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Defense Mechanisms

Defense Mechanisms and Their Relationship to Anxiety

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Updated April 28, 2014

Panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFPP) is a treatment for panic disorder. This type of treatment analyzes one’s defense mechanisms to explore how they contribute to one’s current anxiety and panic symptoms. Defense mechanisms are psychoanalytic concepts believed to be normal responses to anxiety.

Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality proposes that defense mechanisms prevent the ego from being overwhelmed. Defense mechanisms can be good in that they allow us to adjust to our environment. Or, they can become a problem when they prevent us from facing and living in reality.

The following are some defense mechanisms proposed by Freud that continue to play a part in psychoanalytic concepts of behavior.

Denial

You’ve probably heard the expression, “He’s in denial.” It is one of the most common defense mechanisms. By denying the existence of threatening aspects of reality, the individual can feel protected. But, this may serve to distort how an individual thinks, feels and behaves. If one is in denial, he or she may not face and deal with problems in an effective and healthy way.

Displacement

Displacement is a way of coping where one focuses impulses on a safe target rather than directing them toward the true object or person causing the distress. An example could be a person who experiences abuse by a boss at work who then comes home and acts with inappropriate hostility toward his family.

Rationalization

When we feel hurt or disappointed, rationalization provides a defense for the anxiety produced by a bruised ego. For example, a student who is failing algebra may rationalize the situation by stating, “I don’t know why I need this course anyway.”

Compensation

Compensation is used for coping with anxiety that results from feelings of inferiority or perceived weaknesses. The individual focuses on his or her accomplishments or strengths. This defense can be healthy, or it can be an attempt to avoid certain troubling aspects of oneself.

Projection

Projection is attributing to others one’s own unacceptable desires, feelings or impulses. It’s a way of believing that certain characteristics belong to someone else rather than taking responsibility for them. For example, let’s say someone is involved in a situation that he or she was unable to handle. The circumstances caused the person to feel like a coward. But, these feelings are projected onto someone else, and the cowardice of another is to blame for the outcome of the situation.

Reaction Formation

When someone is confronted with disturbing desires or impulses, he or she may actively express the opposite impulse. This involves openly displaying a certain attitude that is opposite of disturbing repressed traits. For example, someone who masks negative reactions to another by being overly nice.

Repression

Repression is one of the most important psychoanalytical concepts. It involves an unconscious process of blocking painful thoughts and feelings from awareness. Though hidden in the unconscious, these painful thoughts and emotions influence current behavior.

Identification

Identification can be an attempt to overcome inferiority by taking on the characteristics of someone important, such as a parent or teacher, but it is often part of a more natural development process. In the former, the individual feels that doing so will help her to be perceived as worthwhile, and self-worth is enhanced. Identification is adaptive in that it creates a process of assuming culturally appropriate behaviors, but it can also be negative when it is used to mask feelings of inferiority.

Fantasy

Fantasy involves retreating to a safe place in one’s own mind. It can be a very useful defense mechanism to deal with anxiety. But, it can also become addictive and negatively impact one’s ability to deal with anxiety in the real world.

Regression

As children, we generally have few demands and rely on others for care. In the face of stress or anxiety, regression takes us back to these earlier times, causing immature and inappropriate behaviors for the individual’s current stage of development. For example, an adult who gets sick and displays childlike behaviors to elicit the care of others.

Sublimation

Sublimation involves redirecting unacceptable sexual or aggressive impulses to socially acceptable ones. An example would be someone with aggressive impulses who becomes a star athlete.

Introjection

Introjection involves incorporating into oneself the standards and values of another person. This defense can have positive or negative consequences. For example, it is positive when it involves incorporating appropriate parental values. But, it becomes negative if the parental values are not acceptable, such as when an abused child becomes an abusive parent.

Undoing

When a person acts inappropriately, it sometimes produces anxiety. To counter this anxiety, the person may try to negate the original behavior. For example, a child who becomes unruly at the dinner table but then offers to help during cleanup.

Emotional Insulation

Withdrawal into passivity to avoid disappointment or hurt is the main component of emotional insulation. For example, someone who really wants to ask someone out for a date but doesn’t do so to avoid the prospect of rejection. Emotional insulation can prevent one from fulfilling many goals because the individual may avoid taking risks for fear of rejection or disappointment.

Source:

Corey, Gerald. (2009). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

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