Defenses Against Anxiety

Adaptive Uses of Anxiety Defense Mechanisms

Natural remedies for anxiety Photo courtesy of HealthlineOpens in new window

Any anxietyOpens in new window is a vague feeling of dread or apprehension; it is a response to external or internal stimuli that can have behavioral, emotional, cognitive and physical symptoms. Anxiety is distinguished from fearOpens in new window, which is a feeling of being afraid or threatened by a clearly identifiable, external stimulus that represents danger to the person.

Sigmund FreudOpens in new window and his daughter, Anna FreudOpens in new window, outlined most of the defense mechanisms we recognize today.

Defense mechanisms are automatic coping styles that protect people from anxiety and maintain self-image by blocking feelings, conflicts, and memories.

Athough they operate all the time, defense mechanisms are not always apparent to the person using them.

Adaptive use of defense mechanisms helps people lower anxiety to achieve goals in acceptable ways. Maladaptive use of defense mechanisms occurs when one or several are used in excess, particularly in the overuse of immature defenses.

With the exception of sublimationOpens in new window and altruismOpens in new window, which are always healthy coping mechanisms, most defense mechanisms can be used in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Most people use a variety of defense mechanisms but not always at the same level.

Keep in mind that evaluating whether the use of defense mechanisms is adaptive or maladaptive is determined for the most part by their frequency, intensity, and duration of use. Table X-1 describes defense mechanisms and their adaptive and maladaptive uses.

Table X-1 Adaptive & Maladaptive Uses of Defense Mechanisms
Defense MechanismAdaptive UseMaladaptive Use
Compensation is used to counterbalance perceived deficiencies by emphasizing strengths.A shorter-than-average man becomes assertively verbal and excels in business.An individual drinks alcohol when self-esteem is low to temporarily diffuse discomfort.
Conversion is the unconscious transformation of anxiety into a physical symptom with no organic cause.No example. Almost always a pathological defense.A man becomes blind after seeing his wife flirt with other men.
Denial involves escaping unpleasant, anxiety-causing thoughts, feelings, wishes, or needs by ignoring their existence.A man reacts to the death of a loved one by saying “No, I don’t believe you” to initially protect himself from the overwhelming news.A woman whose husband died 3 years earlier still keeps his clothes in the closet and talks about him in the present tense.
Displacement is the transference of emotions associated with a particular person, object, or situation.A child yells at his teddy bear after being picked on by the school bully.A child who is unable to acknowledge fear of his father becomes fearful of animals.
Dissociation is a disruption in consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment that results in compartmentalizing uncomfortable or unpleasant aspects of oneself. An art student is able to mentally separate herself from the noisy environment as she becomes absorbed in her work.As the result of an abusive childhood and the need to separate from its realities, a woman finds herself perpetually disconnected from reality.
Identification is attributing to oneself the characteristics of another person or group. This may be done consciously or unconsciously.An 8-year-old girl dresses up like her teacher and puts together a pretend classroom for her friends.A young boy thinks a neighborhood pimp with money and drugs is someone to look up to.
Intellectualization is a process in which events are analyzed based on remote, cold facts and without passion, rather than incorporating feeling and emotion into the processing.Despite the fact that a man has lost his farm to a tornado, he analyzes his options and leads his child to safety.A man responds to the death of his wife by focusing on the details of day care and operating the household, rather than processing the grief with his children.
Projection refers to the unconscious rejection of emotionally unacceptable features and attributing them to others.No example. This is considered an immature defense mechanism.A woman who repressed an attraction toward other womem refuses to socialize. She fears another woman will make homosexual advances toward her.
Rationalization consists of justifying illogical or unreasonable ideas, actions, or feelings by developing acceptable explanations that satisfy the teller and the listener.An employee says, “I don’t get the raise because the boss doesn’t like me.”A man who thinks his son was fathered by another man excuses his malicious treatment of the boy by saying, “He is lazy and disobedient,” when that is not the case.
Reaction formation is when unacceptable feelings or behaviors are controlled and kept out of awareness by developing the opposite behavior or emotion.A recovering alcoholic constantly talks aobut the evisl of drinking.A woman who has an unconscious hostility toward her daughter is overprotective and hovers over her to protect her from harm, interfering with her normal growth and development.
Regression is reverting to an earlier, more primitive and childlike pattern of behavior that may or may not have been previously exhibited. A 4-year-old boy with a new baby brother temporarily starts sucking his thumb and wanting a bottle.A man who loses a promotion starts complaining to others, hands in sloppy work, misses appointments, and comes in late for meetings.
Repression is an unconscious exclusion of unpleasantness or unwanted experiences, emotions, or ideas from conscious awareness.A man forgets his wife’s birthday after a marital fight.A woman is unable to enjoy sex after having pushed out of awareness a traumatic sexual incident from childhood.
Splitting is the inability to integrate the positive and negative qualities of oneself or others into a cohesive image.No example. Almost always a pathological defense.A 26-year-old woman initially values her acquaintances yet invariably becomes disillusioned when they turn out to have flaws.
Sublimation is an unconscious process of substituting mature and socially acceptable activity for immature and unaccepatable impulses.A woman who is angry with her boss writes a short story about a heroic woman.The use of sublimation is always constructive.
Suppression is the conscious denial of a disturbing situation or feeling. For example, Jessica has been studying for the state board examination for a week solid. She says, “I won’t worry about paying my rent until after my exam tomorrow.”A businessman who is preparing to make an important speech is told by his wife that morning that she wants a divorce. Although visibly upset, he puts the incident aside until after his speech, when he can give the matter his total concentration.A woman who feels a lump in her breast shortly before leaving for a 3-week vacation puts the information in the back of her mind until after returning from her vacation.
Undoing is most commonly seen in children. It is when a person makes up for an act or communication. After flirting with her male secretary, a woman brings her husband tickets to a concert he wants to see.A man with rigid, moralistic beliefs and repressed sexuality is driven to wash his hands to gain composure when around attractive women.
  1. Bourne, E.J. (2005). The anxiety and phobias workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  2. Elliott, C.H., & Smith, L.L. (2002). Overcoming anxiety for dummies. New York: John Wiley.
  3. Ohman, A. (2008). Fear and anxiety. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 709 – 729). New York: Guilford.