How our mind defends itself in stressful situations through defense mechanisms

In clinical practice, but also in everyday life, clients, friends, and acquaintances often tell us that sometimes it is difficult for them to understand other people’s behaviors in stressful situations. They state that they would expect people to behave differently, it looks to them as children or partners in conflict situations do not care about them, and sometimes doubt the real suffering even when their clinicians say that their own children ‘not well’. So I heard sentences like “So if these refugees from Syria really have that so bad life, the kids in the columns wouldn’t laugh”, “I don’t understand why people frantically empty store shelves”, “They act like nothing’s going on”, “Our daughter is great, she didn’t even get hit by what happened, she doesn’t even talk about the event, and she never cries …”.


Strategies by which the mind “keeps the personality from falling apart”

Namely, just as our body possesses the mechanisms by which it keeps us from illness, our mind has also developed ways to “keep our personality from falling apart.” We call such strategies in psychology – defense mechanisms. Originally introduced by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic theory, they are explained as strategies of distortion of reality that are unwittingly adopted to protect our ego from anxiety or dangerous urges. This would, in a simplified way, mean that in situations that cause extreme psychological tension, we help by seeing reality in the way our personality can handle it. Then we change our behaviors, and they can be misinterpreted by others: for example, children traumatized by years of war, dangerous travel, and life in refugess camps – looks emotionally flatted (as if nothing is happening to them); adults who deny the actual severity of the threat and insist on continuing their current lifestyle (although it has become impossible); people trying to get a sense of control over the situation by acquiring supplies (as happened in fear of a coronavirus epidemic)…

The situations or periods that most often trigger the activation of our defense mechanisms are stressful situations such as important life changes, conflicts with important people, loss of loved ones, illness, epidemics, war, and the like.


Some of the defense mechanisms are:

  • Denial – refusal to accept reality or fact by acting as if “it” was not happening. For example, some parents, after hearing that their child is ill or not well; or when people in a global threat situation refuse to follow the instructions “because it is nothing”.
  • Dissociation – separation from unpleasant thoughts and feelings because they are too difficult to accept. For example, a child who seems calm when we expect reactions such as sadness, anxiety or other unpleasant emotions, changes in behavior; impossibility to remember the traumatic event which was seen and the like.
  • Projection – we project (as on a “movie screen”) our own unwanted thoughts or feelings onto other people. For example, we are angry at someone’s behavior and accuse another person of being angry with us.
  • Regression – returning to an earlier stage of development. For example, an older child begins to urinate in bed in a stressful situation.
  • Suppression – when our mind pushes or moves unwanted events into the unconscious part of mind because it is too difficult for us to deal with them at that moment, so it does not even remember them.
  • Intellectualization – We are overly focused on the “rational part” to avoid “dealing with” emotions.
  • Rationalization – We try to reasonably explain certain situations, defend ourselves with rational explanations in situations where, for example, we have failed to achieve something or have experienced some failure.
  • Sublimation – when experiencing unpleasant emotions, we choose to embrace an activity that is constructive (sports, cooking, saving…)
  • Humor – We try to see a problematic or stressful situation in a humorous way.
  • Assertiveness – capturing yourself and your emotions in a non-aggressive way.


Previously listed strategies vary in their “immaturity” and the level at which we can adaptively cope with certain situations. Thus, in some situations in which we objectively have no control (eg, waiting for medical exam results), it is adaptive to use “more immature” strategies. However, certain defenses in the short or long term can be detrimental to us, our relationships and others, and it is important at some point to make them aware and to work through unpleasant emotions and events so that they can function “smoothly”.

Knowledge of defense mechanisms can also help us deal with others. It allows us to better understand how others really feel and what their behavior actually tells us so that we can appreciate their ways of surviving difficult times and be adequately supported. It can also open up ways for us to approach others, especially those close to us, in conflict situations and thus get closer to the relationship.

Given that most of our defenses are unconscious, the psychotherapist is often an important helper to us in understanding and accepting ourselves, as well as in better understanding our relationships with others. It can also help us create new, more useful tools for dealing with stressful situations so that we can tackle problems more effectively and also the spare ourselves.


By: Vlatka Križan, clinical psychologist

Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center can not be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.   

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