Childhood Trauma : Defense Mechanisms Resulting from Stress.

In response to stress resulting from our childhood trauma and other factors we often develop psychological DEFENSE MECHANISMS in an attempt to protect ourselves (though, very often, we are not consciously aware that many behaviours/defense mechanisms we have developed have developed in order to try to reduce the adverse effects of stress (though not all, eg CONVERSION – see below).

Often, however, the behaviours we develop which serve as these defense mechanisms to protect ourselves against stress are, at best, unhelpful, and, at worst, extremely damaging. I list and give a brief description of the main defence mechanisms that may develop below:

1) COMPENSATION: this behaviour occurs to offset a weakness or failing in ourselves eg someone who has very low self-esteem becoming a workaholic in an attempt to gain social status.

2) CONVERSION : anxieties can be CONVERTED into physical symptoms eg racing heart, sweating, high blood pressure, psychosomatic illnesses.

3) DENIAL : this defense mechanism is well known and the term has entered into the realms of popular vocabulary. It refers to a situation in which someone will not acknowledge something is wrong (eg after being told by a doctor one has only 3 months to live).

4) DISPLACEMENT : this is when we transfer the emotions we feel caused by one person onto somebody else who has nothing to do with how we’re feeling eg a man badly treated by his boss at work coming home and taking his anger and frustration out on his children.

5) DISSOCIATION : this is when we avoid examining how our behaviours relate to our beliefs by avoiding looking, too closely, at this relationship eg seeing ourselves as caring and compassionate but doing little or nothing to help others

6) FIXATION : this is when we have behaviours which stay fixed at an earlier stage of development and are therefore not appropriate to the life stage the individual is at eg a middle-aged remaining highly emotionally dependent upon his parents

7) IDENTIFICATION : this is when we behave, dress etc in a way which duplicates the way the person we are modelling ourselves on would behave and dress etc (this can occur on both conscious and unconscious levels and is not considered abnormal in young people).

8) INTROJECTION : this is when we turn our feelings towards others onto ourselves. Freud, for example, believed someone who is clinically depressed has, unconsciously, turned his/her anger with another/others onto himself and is, therefore, in effect, punishing him/herself with his/her depressive feelings in a way he/she unconsciously wishes to inflict upon others.

9) INVERSION : this is where we REPRESS a desire which we are uncomfortable having and act in a way which expresses the opposite eg a repressed homosexual who acts in an obsessively homophobic manner. This often occurs on an unconscious level.

10) PROJECTION : this is really the opposite of introjection (see above). It is where we constantly see faults in others which we, ourselves, are ashamed of and feel guilty about having eg constantly pointing out selfishness in others when we ourselves are ashamed of our own selfishness. Again, this can occur on an unconscious level.

11) RATIONALIZATION : this is when we, in effect, deceive ourselves and tell ourselves that something we have, in fact, done due to bad motives we have really done for socially acceptable reasons eg a man who divorces his wife and leaves his young family may tell himself it’s in the best interests of everyone, when, really, deep down, he is doing it purely in his own interest

12) REGRESSION : this is when we go back to behaving in a way that is no longer appropriate and would usually only occur at a much younger age eg a middle-aged man having a child-like tantrum.

13) REPRESSION : this is when we, unconsciously, bury feelings and attitudes which are unacceptable to us, and contrary to our moral beliefs, deep in the mind away from conscious access eg an illicit sexual attraction. When we consciously bury feelings that we are not comfortable with (often referred to in popular language as ‘putting something to the back of our mind’) it is called SUPPRESSION.

14) RESISTANCE : this is where there is a barrier between what we have repressed/banished into the unconscious mind. In other words, what we have repressed is not allowed conscious access. Freud believed this process meant the psychological tension produced by keeping the feeling, memory etc repressed can’t be resolved and so perpetuates the emotional pain that the individual is feeling.

15) SUBLIMATION : this is where the energy associated with feelings that are unacceptable to us (usually sexual, according to Freud) and buried in the unconscious mind is channeled into something else that is socially acceptable. Unlike many of the other defence mechanisms that I have described, this can be very positive, and, even, Freud thought, produce great art.

16) TRANSFERENCE : this is where feelings and emotions we have about a particular individual are transferred onto somebody else who was not the original cause of them. For example, an individual in therapy who transfers the feelings of hatred he feels towards his mother onto the therapist.

17) WITHDRAWAL : this is when we just cut off from a stressful situation, give up, lose interest and become apathetic eg a man who stops trying to make conversation with his wife or take any interest in her after the relationship has been very difficult for a long period of time and he can no longer cope with it


depression and anxiety

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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