Anxiety And Defense Mechanisms



Anxiety is an aversive inner state that people seek to avoid or escape. In layman’s term, it is being worried or getting concerned, preoccupied, getting tense over a person, situation or something. Humans seek to reduce anxiety through defense mechanisms. This was introduced by Sigmund Freud in his theory of Psychoanalysis explaining that defense mechanisms can be psychologically healthy or maladaptive, but tension reduction is the overall goal in both cases.

Three Types of Anxiety

According to Freud, there are three types of anxiety that a person experience:

Reality Anxiety. This is the most basic form which is rooted in reality. It is also called Ego-Based Anxiety because the person feels threatened over what is real and imminent. Examples are fear of a dog bite, fear arising from an impending accident. The most common way to reduce this type of anxiety is to remove oneself from the harmful situation. According to Julia Breur, PhD., “engaging in family and other social relationships, attending to work or school requirements or even enjoying normal daily activities.”

Neurotic Anxiety. Freud indicated that “anxiety which arises from an unconscious fear that the libidinal impulses of the ID will take control at an in opportune time”. This is a conflict between the id and the ego and can result in anxiety symptoms due to fear of punishment that will result from expressing the ID’s desires without proper sublimation. An example for this would be a married woman who is physically and sexually attracted to another man and then suddenly feel anxious that she is doing something wrong.

Moral Anxiety. This type of anxiety develops when the ego and the superego try to argue the existence of a moral code or societal laws, and if violated can lead to feelings of shame and guilt. Sometimes, the attainable standard is no longer acceptable and this is the real cause of the anxiety. For example, persons with weight problems would do everything in order to conform on how society recognizes the ideal body weight, i.e., lean, slim and figure-conscious. To those who are affected by these “norms”, they would resort to some form of punishment like exercising vigorously or not eating at all in order to remind them of what is “acceptable”. That relates to what clinical psychologist David Barlow says. “Anxiety ‘functions to warn of a potential danger situation and triggers the recruitment of internal psychological mechanisms.”



Defense Mechanisms Commonly Used

Below are the common defense mechanisms used by anxious persons in order to protect their egos. Whenever faced with extreme anxiety, the first reaction of a person is to be defensive. Let’s see if you can relate to any of these defense mechanisms in your daily routine.

Repression. This is the first thing that a person does whenever confronted with stressful situations. This is characterized by attempting to push away the unwanted thought or behavior that causes pain or grave emotional disturbance. Mostly done by the unconscious mind, repression allows the person to function normally after setting aside the cause of the anxiety. Example, a child may never remember experiencing an abusive relationship with parents but has problems with trusting and maintaining a serious relationship with the opposite sex.

Denial. The person denies that the threatening event even took place or they refuse to accept that they have a problem within themselves. An example would be an alcoholic stating that he only drinks on special occasions or a mother trying to set up a dinner table and still consider his son alive.

Projection. This defense mechanism allows the person to blame others for their mistakes or mishaps in life. Instead of accepting responsibility for the truth surrounding the situation, they would project negative feelings to others to take the blame. Example, you don’t like this person for certain reasons, but you were taught by your parents that it is not good to hate others. So, instead of saying I don’t like this person, you will project the negative feelings and say “He doesn’t even like me at all.”

Rationalization. This is trying to explain the bad behavior that the person does in order to show that it is justifiable. For example, a man who constantly drinks blames his drinking habit to a stressful work environment.

Regression. Behaviors like cigarette smoking or chewing bubble gum whenever exposed to stressful conditions are examples of this defense mechanism. This is regressing or going back to earlier years of life and the person will mimic behaviors that they are fixated on a certain stage.



One has to understand and remember that defense mechanisms are normal reactions towards anxiety. As Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. says, “defense mechanisms are a part of our everyday life. Even if you’re not a Freudian by philosophy or training, you’ve got to admit that there’s something to be said for the idea that everyone engages in some form of self-deception at least some of the time.”
However, if there is an excessive utilization of these mechanisms it can lead to a distortion of reality and it can become maladaptive. There is a need to handle anxiety in acceptable terms in order to maintain a connection with what is real.

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