Childhood Trauma Leading To Psychotic And Immature Defense Mechanisms


According to the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the unconscious defense mechanisms we employ to help us deal with stress can be split into three main types ; these are :

  • psychotic defense mechanisms.
  • immature defense mechanisms.
  • intermediate / neurotic defense mechanisms.
  • mature defense mechanisms.

If we have suffered severe and protracted childhood trauma which has led to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) / complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD), we are more likely than average to develop psychotic and immature defenses rather than intermediate and mature ones.

Psychotic Defense Mechanisms :

Those who have been so affected by their traumatic experiences that they have developed PTSD or personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) are liable to develop psychotic defense mechanisms ; these include :

  • psychotic denial.
  • psychotic distortion,
  • psychotic projection,

All of these defense mechanisms are maladaptive.

Immature Defense Mechanisms :

Complex PTSD / PTSD sufferers are also prone to developing immature defense mechanisms; these include :

  • dissociation
  • – autistic fantasy
  • – passive aggression
  • – projection (paranoia)

These defense mechanisms are also maladaptive and also occur commonly in those suffering personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Intermediate / Neurotic Defense Mechanisms :

  • displacement
  • regression
  • isolation

Mature Defense Mechanisms :

  • suppression
  • sublimation
  • altruism
  • humoanticipation
  • affiliation


Whilst immature defense mechanisms are maladaptive, mature defense mechanisms can be adaptive and healthy by, for example, helping to reduce our levels of anxiety, raising our levels of self-esteem and increasing our resilience and coping abillity in times of crisis.


Indeed, a study conducted by Malone et al., (2013), investigated the type of defense mechanisms being used by a group of individuals (all male) aged between 47 years and 63 years (specifically, the researchers were interested in THE LEVEL OF MATURITY OF THESE DEFENSE MECHANISMS).

The researchers then followed up these same individuals to assess the state of their health at the ages of 70, 75 and 80.

It was found those individuals who used defense mechanisms that were mature tended to have a higher level of social support and better health in later life than those who used less mature defense mechanisms.

This, then, suggests that mature defense mechanisms can help to improve not only mental health, but physical health, too.

Two reasons why mature coping mechanisms may improve physical health are :

  1. People who use mature defense mechanisms are better socially integrated than those who use immature ones (see above) and it is the commensurate social support they receive that benefits their health.
  2. Those who use immature defense mechanisms suffer greater levels of stress than their psychologically healthier counterparts and it is this increased stress that harms their health.

Conclusion :

If we can develop healthier and more mature defense mechanisms, then, based on the above research it would seem possible that we might become easier to be around, leading to increased social integration and more social support, leading to reduced stress and improved mental and physical health.

If you would like to see the full and detailed list of defense mechanisms taken into account in the study referred to above, click this link : FULL LIST OF DEFENSE MECHANISMS.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

The Freeze Response To Trauma

It is well known that our body’s self-protective response to imminent danger and threat (whether perceived or real) is to enter a state of ‘fight’ or ‘flight.’ However, what is perhaps slightly less well known is there is a third type of response :  the FREEZE RESPONSE.

Whilst the ‘fight or flight’ reponse involves activation of the SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM, or SNS, the ‘freeze response’ entails acivation of the PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM, or PNS (or, more specifically, the DORSAL VAGAL PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM).

We may enter the freeze state (a state in which we psychologically and physically ‘shut down’) when the sympathetic nervous system has been intensely stimulated and yet we are STILL UNABLE TO PROTECT OURSELVES via the fight or flight response. In simplified terms, then, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to ‘shut us down’ after an overworked sympathetic nervous system, as it were, ‘gives up’ and ‘throws in the towel.’ Technically, this is known as DORSAL VAGUS SHUTDOWN.

What Are The Main Characteristics Of The ‘Freeze State?’

The main symptoms that the ‘freeze state’ can give rise to are as follows :

  • decreased heart rate
  • decreased blood pressure
  • loss of sexual drive
  • feelings of derealiztion / depersonalization/ being ‘cut off from reality
  • feeling ‘zoned out’ (dissociated)
  • feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • psychic numbing
  • reduced rate of breathing
  • feelings of shame
  • impaired ability to access emotions
  • reduced rate of metabolism in the brain impairing ability to think clearly (the brain may feel ‘foggy’) and adversely affecting autobiographical memory
  • impaired articulacy
  • defensive / defeated body llanguage
  • feelings of numbness
  • complete collapse
  • inability to move certain parts of the body
  • reduced sensitivity to physical pain
  • feelings of constrictioin in the throat
  • feelings of being ‘trapped’
  • restricted breathing
  • reduction in facial expression

The Freeze Response To Trauma 1

In evoloutionary terms, the freeze response has come about by allowing animals to ‘feign death’ (also known as ‘tonic immobility’ or ‘thanatosis’) as a defensive measure in life -threatening situations and to keep the body completely still so as not to attract the attention of predators ; also, the shutdown of the body helps to conserve metabolic energy until the ‘fight / flight’ state can be re-engaged.

In humans, however, when an individual, in connection with his /her childhood / developmental trauma, enters the freeze state, it can last for days, weeks, months or years. Whilst the individual may well not, objectively speaking, be in a real life-threatening situation, the brain and nervous system, on an unconscious level, ‘believes’ (and is therefore reacting as if) he / she is

According to polyvagal theory (Porges), in order to break out of the freeze state it is necessary for the traumatized individual, under the guidance of a suitably qualified, experienced, empathetic and re-assuring therapist, to start to process the traumatic childhood memories that gave rise to his ./ her condition and, in so doing, temporarily to re-enter the fight / flight state whilst being, simultaneously,  encouraged by the therapist to develop a sense of safety and social re-engagent, leading, ultimately, to reactivation of the previously shut down social engagement biological system ; activation of this system is of such vital importance as it is the opposite of the dorsal vagus system (i.e. the system that originally caused the traumatized individual to ‘shutdown’ – see above).

Therapies that have been shown to be of help with this recovery processes include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) as they can train the individual restructure his / her thoughts in a way that helps him / her judge how safe s/he is more objectively and rationally and to break free from feelings of dissociation by feeling more present in his / her body.

Why Social Engagement Is So Vital :

Essentially, re-engaging socially, is of such vital importance as it is the opposite of the dorsal vagus system (i.e. the system that causes a person to ‘shutdown’ – see above) and helps the individual feel safe whilst processing his / her traumatic memories, temporarily re-entering the fight / flight state, and, ultimately, transitioning back to a state in which the social engagement biological system is healthily reactivated.

You can read more about polyvagal theory in Porges’ book (see below) :


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



Childhood Trauma : Some Important Facts And Statistics


In the United States, about 50% of children experience at least one traumatic event during their childhood.


Many of these live with chronic, perpetual and relentless trauma (e.g. living in a family in which there is ongoing abuse) thus denying the child periods of time for recovery between events (which can lead to developmental trauma / complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD).

After a traumatic life event, the vast majority nof children will experience severe distress ; however, in the case of complex postraumatic stress disorder, effects may be considerably delayed.

The more social and family support the child has, the more likely it is that he / she will be able to make a recovery. However, many children will also require clinical intervention. Sadly, at the current time, the majority of children who require clinical intervention do not receive it. This is, in part, due to the fact that childhood trauma frequently goes unacknowledged.

The child’s reaction to trauma is affected by the context in which it occurs.

How the child reacts to the trauma will be affected by his / her age and level of maturity.

The child’s response, and adjustment, to trauma can involve several stages.

Individuals who have been exposed to severe, ongoing, chronic trauma during childhood are at high risk of developing an SERIOUSLY IMPAIRED CAPACITY to cope and deal with subsequent stress in their lives.

Early life trauma can reprogram our DNA.

When a child is affected by trauma his / her parents / family are also affected and how they respond, and how they interact with the child, will also affect how the child reacts to the traumatic experience.

The child’s developmental level will affect how s / he responds to the trauma.

The culture in which the child exists will affect how s / he responds to the trauma.





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


BPD And Impaired Ability To Send And Receive Social Signals.


We have already seen from many other articles published on this site that severe and protracted childhood trauma dramatically increases the probability that the individual will go on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) in later life. We have also seen that one of the major symptoms of BPD is chronic difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships with others. Recent research suggests that one of the important reasons that BPD sufferers experience such interpersonal difficulties is due to an impaired ability to send both receive and send social signals  (also referred to as SOCIAL COGNITION).

In terms of RECEIVING social signals from others, research has consistently shown that sufferers of BPD are liable to dysfunctionally and inaccurately infer the mental state of others (by, for example, interpreting the social signals these others are sending out are hostile when, in objective terms, they are not ; in other words, often, when BPD sufferers are trying to work out how others feel about them in social situations. they tend towards paranoid-style thinking styles – although usually not to such extreme levels that would qualify as being indicative of flagrant psychosis [it should be noted, though, that sufferers of BPD can occasionally suffer brief periods of psychosis, usually in response to particularly severe stress]).


In terms of the social signals that BPD sufferers SEND / GIVE OUT to others, recent research also suggests that they may also have an impaired ability to do this, too. It has been noted, for example, that BPD sufferers are more likely to send out ‘mixed’ social signals and also to express their emotions in more opaque and ‘hard to read’ ways than is the social norm.

In connection with the above, it is important to note that social signals can be sent and received on BOTH a conscious level AND on an unconscious level. And, although much of the research on the deficits BPD sufferers experience in relation to this is still at an early stage,  it is becoming increasingly apparent that such deficits in social cognition may be at the very heart of the myriad interpersonal difficulties those with BPD frequently face.

Advanced Social Skills Training Pack | Self Hypnosis Downloads

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



Effects Of Interpersonal Childhood Trauma On Sexuality

According to the traumagenic dynamics model (Finkelhor and Browne), severe and protracted childhood interpersonal childhood trauma (interpersonal trauma refers to types of trauma that occur between the child and significant others e,g, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and witnessing domestic violence) can give rise to pervasive feelings of betrayal, powerlessness, stigmatization and traumatic sexualization, which in turn, can have extremely adverse effects upon self-image, one’s view of the world and one’s emotional responses.

This can then lead to two contrasting negative effects upon the individual’s sexuality :

  • some may respond by becoming sexually compulsive
  • others may respond by becoming sexually avoidant
Effects Of Interpersonal Childhood Trauma On Sexuality 2

Sexual compulsion is sometimes referred to as hypersexuality and involves the individual being preoccupied (to the extent that it causes the individual distress and / or negatively impacts important parts of his / her life such as physical health, vocation and relationships) with urges, fantasies and / or activities that are hard to keep under control ; these may include excessive promiscuity, risky sex, masturbation, paying for prostitutes, pornography and cybersex.

The term ‘sexual avoidance,’ on the other hand, refers to chronic lack of sexual desire which has serious adverse effects upon the individual’s quality of life ; if the extent of sexual avoidance and related symptoms meet a certain threshold, it can be diagnosed as sexual aversion disorder. A person suffering from this disorder may avoid sex due to feelings of fear, revulsion and disgust in relation to sexual activity and suffer panic attacks at the thought of participating in it ; this, in turn, can, of course, seriously damage intimate relationships.

Both sexual avoidance and sexual compulsion are thought to be defense mechanisms (albeit dysfunctional ones) serving to protect the individual from intrusive, traumatic memories and flashbacks, or to reduce feelings of low self-esteem related to the devastating effects of the original childhood, interpersonal trauma. For example, a person with very low self-esteem may compulsively try to attract sexual partners to help him / her feel ‘desired’, ‘wanted’ or ‘loved’, however illusory, fleeting and superficial such faux-feelings may be.

Such promiscuity undertaken in a (futile) attempt to bolster self-esteem can, of course, ultimately serve only exacerbate feelings of loneliness, emptiness, guilt and shame ; indeed, it should be noted that some individuals alternate between periods of sexual compulsion and periods of avoidance. This ambivalence towards the concept of sexual activity reflects how individuals can be prone to switch between sexually compulsive behavior – in a desperate attempt to feel better – and sexually avoidant behavior – when they realize such behavior has left them feeling even worse).

Finally, it should be stated that research suggests sexual dysfunctional behavior not only can affect those who have experienced interpersonal trauma through sexual abuse, but also through physical and psychological abuse, as well.


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

PTSD And Physically Evaluating The Brain

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD) can both be considered forms of brain INJURY even though the cause of the injury is extreme psychological trauma rather than a physical trauma such as a blow to the head with a hammer or car accident.

However, when psychiatrists treat PTSD with drugs, they do so, in the vast majority of cases, without looking at the organ they are treating (i.e. the brain), unlike, say, a cardiologist, who would not consider treating the heart without, first, physically evaluating it.

In relation to this, the psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen stresses the importance that, before prescribing psychoactive drugs in patients suffering from PTSD (and other disorders), it is vital that the patient’s brain is physically evaluated in order to help ascertain in what ways it may be behaving sub-optimally ; he argues that such physical evaluations of the brain would reduce the amount of guess work psychiatrists (who do not examine the brain) must currently employ when prescribing medications intended to beneficially alter brain function and thus ameliorate the patient’s particular symptoms.

The method Amen recommends for physically evaluating what is going on in the brains of patients seeking therapeutic intervention for their particular condition is called SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging.

PTSD And Physically Evaluating The Brain 3

What Information Does SPECT Imaging Provide About The Brain?

SPECT imaging measures blood flow in the brain and, because this blood flow reflects brain activity, it provides three important preces of information about the brain’s functionality ; these are :

  1. Areas of the brain that are functioning well.
  2. Areas of the brain that are overactive.
  3. Areas of the brain that are underactive.

Armed with this information, Amen argues, the psychiatrist who makes use of SPECT imaging is in a much stronger position to tailor his / her treatment to the specific needs of the individual based upon the results of this imaging technique, whereas the psychiatrist who does not physically evaluate the brain in such a manner is forced to merely speculate what is happening in the patient’s brain, thus making his / her decisions about which psychoactive drugs need to be administered less informed and, potentially, therefore, less effective.

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

Flashbacks, Memory And The Prefrontal Cortex


We have seen from numerous other articles that I have published on this site how severe and protracted childhood trauma can, in some cases, lead to the development of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD) in later life and that one possible symptom of this condition is the experiencing of FLASHBACKS.

Flashbacks involve the individual who suffers from them re-experiencing and reliving traumatic events involuntarily in such an intense and vivid way (sometimes involving hallucinations) that it feels like they are actually happening in the here-and-now.

Flashbacks are generally triggered by something that reminds the individual (on a conscious or unconscious level) of the original traumatic event, even very tandentially.


Flashbacks, Memory And The Prefrontal Cortex 4

A study conducted in 2008 involving sufferers of disorders related to stress has helped to cast some light upon what is happening in the brains of individuals who are prone to experiencing flashbacks.

First, it was found that these individuals’ ability to perform general memory tasks was inferior in comparison to the performance on the same tasks by healthy individuals.

Second, when those suffering from a stress-related condition were asked by the researchers to carry out a ‘suppression task’ (a task in which they were required to attempt NOT to think about something) they demonstrated LESS ACTIVITY IN THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX than did the healthy individuals when instructed to undertake the same task.

From this finding it was inferred that these individuals’ (i.e. those suffering from a stress-related disorder) underactive prefrontal cotices interfered with their ability to prevent traumatic memories breaking through into conscious awareness.

Learning ‘GROUNDING TECHNIQUES’ can help individuals cope with their flashbacks (grounding techniques involve using the five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell – to reconnect with the present) although many may also require the services of an appropriately trained, qualified and experienced therapist, paticularly if suffering from disorders such as PTSD or complex PTSD.

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

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