The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.
When it comes to coping or working through a difficult situation, everyone has different ways of reacting and working through their emotions and responses. Your psychological reaction to an uncomfortable event or emotion is called a “defense mechanism”, which is used to protect yourself from anxiety or panic. In an attempt to avoid emotional distress, your mind has been developing habits since early childhood to put you at ease. These are different from your learned defense – communication, reasoning, and defending yourself – in that they work to avoid pain short term. Learning more about your brain’s inherent defense mechanisms can help you better understand your reactions and stress responses, giving you a better idea of how to cope and work through these auto-pilot moments in a healthier way.
Types of Defense Mechanisms
Whether the situation is too painful to confront or you’re unable to find a solution to make you feel comfortable, you may go into denial. This is when you’re unable to accept the reality of what’s happening and your mind attempts to avoid the pain. As mentioned earlier, this is only a short-term solution and can end up resulting in more discomfort in the future. When your mind is trying to protect you from feeling sad or rejected, it can end up hurting others in the process. It’s important to work through acceptance and understanding of what’s going on in front of you so you can begin healing sooner than if you were to avoid the situation.
Regression is when your mind puts you back to an earlier time to avoid the current situation, often taking you to a “happy place” that’s typically from a pleasant memory in your childhood. When an adult experiences trauma, they can regress and revert to a time when they didn’t feel scared or panicked. Because of how painful exposing and confronting traumatic experiences can be, you may pretend you’re a child again to temporarily avoid your emotions. In many cases, this is a safety routine the mind goes through in order to reduce pain and heightened anxiety. Counseling and a strong support system can help you to notice signs of regression and navigate coming back to the present in order to confront the situation and get help.
When someone says you “check out” of a stressful situation or argument, you may be prone to dissociation. While some people are able to recognize when they’re dissociating, others report not feeling conscious, as if they’re having an out-of-body experience, or like they’ve been asleep. You may begin focusing on memories from the past, fantasizing or daydreaming, or even watching the conversation from outside of yourself. People who have experienced trauma or have difficulty confronting negative emotions typically dissociate when triggered in order to escape from the present reality and cope in a dream-like state. This can be dangerous in many situations, and it’s important to develop a routine to come out of dissociation when confronted with negative experiences.
Projection is the habit of taking unpleasant or painful thoughts and emotions and attributing them to someone else. You may not take responsibility for negativity and feel less pain from saying someone else is inflicting you with that pain, instead of acknowledging it’s your own response. Projection is most often used by individuals that have difficulty expressing themselves and avoid shame or discomfort for having these feelings or reactions. A common example is when a person cheats in their relationship; instead of owning up to their actions and confronting their shame and guilt, they accuse their partner of being unfaithful in order to feel relief from the negativity. In order to reduce projection, you need to find ways to confront your negativity and wrong-doings in a way that holds you accountable. Although you may not want to explore these reactions, having assistance from a mental health care professional or a trusted friend or family member can enable you to take responsibility for your actions.
Learning to Cope
It’s important to find healthy ways to cope when put under pressure or working through a stressful situation. Counseling can be a great way to not only learn more about yourself but adjust your habits and find a healthy routine to release stress and anxiety. Online mental health resources like BetterHelp can connect you with experienced professionals that can support you. You have the opportunity to learn more about what defense mechanisms you use to protect yourself and how you can manage emotional responses in a controlled and healthy way.