Understanding Anxiety: 7 Common Defense Mechanisms

All of us feel anxious from time to time. Some people, however, experience anxiety too often, even when there are no apparent reasons to feel nervous. There are many types of anxiety disorders, and it is the most common mental issue in the U.S. According to statistics, about 40 million Americans live with anxiety.

People experience anxiety differently. When everything feels overwhelming and you experience physical symptoms similar to those of a panic attack, it can be really difficult to perform your regular activities and enjoy your everyday life.

Although anxiety can make a person feel very uncomfortable, it often remains unnoticed. The reason is that anxiety is rooted in unhealthy thinking patterns. For example, someone may think that everyone looks at them or exaggerate the consequences of their failures.

If a person doesn’t recognize the unhealthy thoughts, they may not realize that their behavior in certain situations is influenced by anxiety, therefore ignoring the real problem. People with anxiety may also develop different types of defense mechanisms in an attempt to cope with the symptoms of anxiety.

In this article, we will take a closer look at defense responses and consider the most common defense mechanisms examples to better understand anxiety disorders and their impact.

If you realize that some of the defense mechanisms below look too familiar, you may want to consider therapy. Not only can you talk to a therapist in their office, but you can also get the necessary support remotely thanks to video chat therapy.

 Defense Mechanisms Explained

Defense mechanisms are strategies that we use unconsciously to cope with the symptoms of anxiety. Simply put, our unconscious mind manipulates our thoughts, perceptions, and experiences to minimize the bad feelings associated with anxiety.

Defense mechanisms were first described by Sigmund Freud back in 1894 in The Neuro-Psychoses of Defense. Freud thought that defense mechanisms were rooted in disagreements between different areas of the human psyche. Freud’s theory described the three key areas: the Id, Ego, and Superego.

According to this theory, Ego uses defense mechanisms to block the urges of the Id and manage the differences between the Id and Superego. Although modern researchers dismiss Freud’s conceptualization of mind structures, this was the first theory that described our unconscious, becoming the basis for our understanding of defense mechanisms.

In his earliest works, Freud considered all defense mechanisms as pathological and noted that they contribute to the development of various mental disorders. However, in the 1960s, psychologists started to focus on the dual nature of defense mechanisms. The thing is that defense can also be used as an adaptive tool.

Adaptive defense is particularly common among children, and it can actually help psychological growth. In adults, however, defense is usually associated with symptoms of distress and mental disorders. Excessive use of defense mechanisms is usually linked to anxiety, depression, personality disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

There are several types of defense mechanisms, and they are also categorized as successful and unsuccessful. While successful defense mechanisms allow people to minimize anxiety almost instantly, unsuccessful mechanisms fail to fulfill their purpose.

Pathological defenses are a broad category of harmful defense mechanisms. Such defenses distort a person’s perception of reality and may actually worsen the symptoms of anxiety and distress.

These are the first defense mechanisms that we use as children. Children often don’t know how to deal with difficult situations on their own so they may use avoidance, freezing, or fighting as defense mechanisms. Such types of defense are completely acceptable during childhood but they are also signs of emotional problems in adults.

  Top 7 Defense Mechanisms Examples

1.      Denial

This is one of the most common defense mechanisms. Usually, people say that someone’s in denial when that person seems unable or unwilling to face reality and obvious facts.

Denial is exactly what it looks like: it means that a person refuses to acknowledge and recognize something that happens. For example, people with substance use disorder often refuse to acknowledge their addiction.

Similarly, people with anxiety may refuse to recognize events that trigger their anxiety or their own reactions to these events. The reason is that the purpose of denial is to protect us from something we cannot cope with.

2.     Sublimation

The sublimation defense mechanism protects us from inappropriate impulses and responses to stressors. In this case, the mind turns these impulses into appropriate behavior. For instance, people with anger problems may choose martial arts as an opportunity to get rid of frustration.

Sublimation psychology has been studied by researchers for many years, and mental health professionals agree that it’s a mature response to unacceptable impulses. Freud believed that this defense mechanism enables people to function normally in society.

3.     Rationalization

This defense mechanism implies explaining unacceptable feelings or behavior logically and rationally. This way, a person can avoid thinking about the real reasons for their feelings and behavior. For instance, a person may attribute success to their own skills and talents while blaming failures on other people or circumstances.

Nevertheless, rationalization can help people cope with anxiety, and it can also protect self-esteem. The downside of this defense mechanism is that it can stop you from recognizing the root causes of your anxiety.

4.     Suppression and repression

Repression is a mechanism used by your mind to protect your consciousness from certain information. The problem is that, even though traumatizing memories can be repressed, they still continue to influence our behavior. For example, repressed memories of violence experienced as a child may impact a person’s relationships in the future.

Suppression also refers to removing information from one’s awareness, but in this case, this happens consciously. However, researchers believe that the removal of memories that cause anxiety usually happens unconsciously.

5.     Displacement

When someone is frustrated or deals with difficult feelings, they may take out this frustration on other people and objects. Perhaps, the most common example of this defense mechanism is displaced aggression.

For example, if someone is angry at their boss, they may express their anger towards someone who doesn’t pose any threat. Obviously, such a defense mechanism can have a significant negative impact on one’s relationships.

6.     Projection

This type of defense implies attributing your unacceptable behavior or feelings to others. For instance, if you don’t like a certain person, you may believe that they don’t like or don’t respect you.

The logic behind the projection defense mechanism is simple: a person can allow some impulses and desires while keeping them hidden from the ego. As a result, anxiety is reduced.

7.     Regression

When stressed out, people may also abandon mature defense mechanisms and return to behavioral patterns that they’ve used earlier in their lives. For instance, when a person faces a stressful situation, they might start to cry. Overeating and verbal aggression are also common signs of regression.

Final Thoughts: What Can You Do About Anxiety?

As you can see, many of the defense mechanisms described above aren’t really effective. Given that the main purpose of defense mechanisms is to protect our conscious mind from realizing the problem, they may only make things worse because they prevent you from addressing the root causes of anxiety.

If you have anxiety, the best solution is to consider therapy for anxiety. A licensed therapist can help you understand what makes you feel anxious and suggest effective grounding techniques for anxiety. You can also learn to manage anxiety with journaling and use various self-care practices, such as breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga.

Anxiety can be treated, but you need to ask for help. While traditional therapy requires you to be present in a therapist’s office, which may not be a convenient option for people with busy schedules, you can also get the necessary support remotely.

Therapy platforms like Calmerry allow you to talk to online therapists and get professional help from home. Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven to be effective when delivered remotely, and this option might be convenient even for people with very tight work schedules. Learn more about therapy to prepare for your first session.